Tag Archives: Professor Tellwyrn

Bonus #54: Lightning in a Bottle, part 7

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Unsurprisingly, the Archmage’s portrait had no answer save its smug expression. Rhadid turned and snatched the vial from Admestus’s hand without another word, swiftly yanking out the cork and raising it to his lips.

“Whoah!” the alchemist interjected, raising both his hands. “Baby sips! Not more than a drop at a time, no less than four hours apart. Seriously, that’s pure, concentrated life essence and just a dash of time travel in liquid form. I don’t actually know what it’d look like if you overdosed on that, but I bet it would be hilarious. I mean, more for me than for you, obviously.”

Rhadid paused, giving him a sidelong look. But then he finally put the vial to his lips and very carefully tilted a drop onto his tongue.

His expression as he capped the vial again and slipped it into his pocket was pensive. “…pomegranate?”

“Eh? Eh?” Admestus grinned. “That’d be the life essence. You can’t really taste the time travel, fortunately. That’s more reminiscent of rust and ozone, and in higher doses would give you the farts something severe.”

“I feel no different,” the aristocrat mused. “If you have deceived me or failed in your task, Rafe, odds are we shall both be dead within the hour.”

“Well, an immortality potion that made you, I dunno, glow or levitate or something, that seems like it’d be asking for trouble, right? I thought the idea was to pass for a normal person who just can’t die. Makes you less of a target. Believe me, you’ll notice the difference as soon as something tries to kill you.”

“Or, if you are wrong, not,” said Rhadid. “Your work will be tested rather sooner than I anticipated, Admestus. I examined our surroundings while you were at work, and there appears to be an armory in the next chamber. The equipment is eclectic, antique, and heavily enchanted, but when a squad of vengeful Imperial soldiers is bearing down upon us, that may be just the ticket. Come, we have little time to prepare.”

“Uh, point of order,” Admestus said uncertainly, trailing along behind as Rhadid strode out of the laboratory but not, himself, moving to pass through the door. “I’m not lawyer or anything but surely the ranting of an undead wizard in a dungeon isn’t, y’know, admissible in court?”

“I don’t know why you persist in pretending to be stupid, but refrain from suggesting that I am likewise,” Rhadid snapped, pausing on the balcony outside and turning to stare at him. “Of course whatever just transpired has no legal weight. Thus, the belligerent fool who already detests me and is in command of the Imperial troops here will not want me in a position to argue my case before a magistrate. An inquiry into my mysterious death will be far easier for her to control. They will open with staff fire, not questions.”

“Yeah, but that specifically won’t do you any harm, now,” Admestus pointed out.

Rhadid was silent for a moment, studying him. “And there is what comes after to be considered. I am content for Roscoe to force a confrontation she doesn’t know she will lose for the same reason: whoever survives will decide before the law what happened here. It clearly doesn’t serve me to have Imperial soldiers reporting on my ambitions.”

“So, that little story was…”

“Which,” Rhadid continued in a low voice, “raises questions about the rest of you. One hates to destroy a rare talent such as yours or Professor Ahlstrom’s, Admestus. The soldiers, the gnomes, they matter to no one and won’t be missed. You are of great value to me, and you know I reward my most valuable servants generously. The more my plans progress, the more you will be positioned to profit by it. What say you?”

“Uh, well,” Rafe said with uncharacteristic hesitation, absently rubbing his palms against his trousers. “That’s, I mean, the prospect—”

Rhadid’s rapier completely cleared its sheath faster than the average human eye could have followed. In a narrow doorway with one avenue of retreat, even half-elven reflexes did not defeat those of a swordsman who had trained since he could walk. The slender blade was sunk up to half its length in Rafe’s heart before the alchemist could retreat two steps.

“Hesitation gives answer,” said Rhadid. “I am sorry, Rafe, truly. It will be no end of trouble to find a talent equal to yours. But at least now I know where to bring them when I need…”

Admestus Rafe dissolved before his eyes, disintegrating into a puff of fog, which then dissipated into the air without a trace. Rhadid was left holding a sword on which there was not even a bloodstain.

“Crafty little halfling,” the nobleman said with an appreciative smile. He backed out of the door and sheathed his sword, already turning toward the nearby armory. “Play your games, then, alchemist. Since our host has seen fit to make me the arbiter of this contest, no one is leaving here until it is decided. And remember, old man,” he added, pausing to address the air. “I was never a less than courteous guest. Now my hand is forced, and the outcome of your game will be final. On your head be it.”

He did not notice his coat shifting more than his movement should have made it as he turned to enter the armory chamber.


“Will they be all right?” Eric huffed, trundling along behind Billie. “I know they’re out of sight behind the stacks, but aren’t they a bit cornered?”

“Don’t you worry about those three, Professor, gnomes know what we’re about in a crisis. An’ I’m not about ta leave a companion behind, never fear. We’ll getcha someplace not in the line o’ fire, quick as we can!”

“Yes, as to that, are you sure this isn’t all rather an overreaction? It’s not as if there is any proof the book’s account is true…”

“Aye, an’ there’s no lack o’ precedent for magic talkin’ books ta spew lies, either,” she agreed, glancing over her shoulder at him without slowing. “Leavin’ out the question o’ how believable that story was—which, havin’ met ‘is Lordship, is a lot—there’s the issue o’ why the ol’ wizard woulda spilled those beans.”

“Diristaan did enjoy setting his rivals against each other,” Eric said around gasps for air. “Please, can’t we slow down? Dwarves are not build for speed!”

“Good, cos this ain’t anything resemblin’ speed,” she muttered, but did moderate her pace slightly. “What’s at stake is ‘ow two relevant personalities will react t’that revelation, true or not. One’s a volatile, aggressive twit who I dunno how she got made an officer, one’s a cold ambitious snake who’s just ‘ad ‘is dirty laundry aired, an’ both are packin’ lightning. This is no time ta get casual about—”

“YOU!”

“Aaaaand speak o’ the Dark Lady,” Billie muttered, coming to a halt and raising her hands as the soldiers rounded the balcony corner ahead of them, weapons already leveled. Eric staggered up behind her, wheezing, and doubled over to brace his hands on his knees as soon as they were no longer moving.

“Where are you rushing off to?” Lieutenant Roscoe demanded.

“Findin’ a quiet spot ta wait this out,” Billie said. “Y’mind pointin’ those zappers another way? Bad form, trainin’ yer killsticks on somebody y’don’t actually mean to kill.”

“Where are the rest of those gnomes?” Roscoe snapped, her staff not wavering.

“Already gone,” Billie drawled. “Seriously, lady, we’ve gone this long stayin’ outta Imperial business, why would that change now? You got a treasonous noble on yer ‘ands, fine, it must be Tuesday. That’s a you kinda thing, let’s not involve the bystanders.”

“I’m inclined to agree,” Roscoe said grimly, “at least as far as you gnomes go. But he is a member of Rhadid Daraspian’s party, and therefore a person of interest in this. You are under arrest, dwarf.”

Still panting, Eric straightened up slightly. He raised one hand, palm out, mutely begging for a moment to finish catching his breath.

“Oh, aye,” Billie said with scathing sarcasm. “Jus’ look at the fiend in ‘is little tweed suit. Thank th’Pantheon Theasia ‘as you ta protect ‘er from lost academics.”

“She’s quite right, you know,” Rhadid himself called, strolling up the balcony from behind the dwarf and gnome. “Really, Roscoe, picking on the Professor? You are the most trigger-happy excuse for a soldier it has ever been my misfortune to encounter.”

“Daraspian!” she snarled. “In the Empress’s name, you are under arrest for high treason against the Silver Throne! Stand where you are, disarm yourself, and place your hands atop your head!”

He did, at least, come to a stop, giving her and her squad a long, speculative look, but then focused his attention on the others again.

“In seriousness, Billie, where were you running? This whole complex is relatively enclosed; one spot to be caught in the fracas seems as good as the next.”

“Doors on the third level,” she explained. “Y’know, where we came in. There may not even be a floor outside anymore, but I figured, hey, maybe the Manor’ll at least let th’poor Professor sit this one out. He’s its biggest fan an’ ‘as no dog in this race, after all.”

“Ah, that does make sense,” Rhadid said, nodding.

“Enough!” shouted Roscoe. “You will comply, Daraspian!”

“No,” he said calmly. “Your order is unlawful, Lieutenant. You have no case, you have nothing which will stand as probable cause, and the very instant I am in a room with someone higher in your chain of command, you will have no career. Now are you going to belatedly pretend to be something approximating an officer, or are you going to murder me in cold blood in front of witnesses?”

She took two aggressive steps forward, sighting down the length of her staff. “I will not tell you again.”

Rhadid smiled patronizingly. “Yes, you will.”

The blast of lightning made Billie and Eric both throw themselves flat to the ground. They were not faster than the staffshot, obviously, but very fortunately it was a well-tuned weapon with refined direction charms and the blast did not arc off-course to strike either of them despite passing close enough to make their hair stand on end.

Lord Rhadid deliberately adjusted the lapels of his suit, right where it was smoking from the lightning bolt’s impact. Roscoe’s eyes widened and she backed up half a step; one of her soldiers muttered a curse.

“That,” Rhadid said pleasantly, “was the incorrect response.”

With that, he drew his wand and returned fire.

Fortunately for Eric, the very shrill noises he made were covered by the storm of crossfire flashing right above his head. He and Billie were quite effectively pinned down while Rhadid and the soldiers locked themselves into a wild stalemate shooting back and forth across them; the noble’s sidearm was simply not powerful enough to crack multiple military-grade shielding charms, while the full-strength staff shots he repeatedly absorbed were inexplicably ineffective against him, even without the telltale flash of a defensive enchantment to neutralize them. Nothing wearable could have stood up to that kind of assault, anyway, and yet he was totally unaffected.

Billie, undaunted by the destruction flying past overhead, belly-crawled over to the dwarf and tried to shake his shoulder to get his attention. Eric had buried his face against the floor in a panic, though, shielding his head with both his arms. Renewing her efforts in frustration, she found his heavy, sturdy form completely impossible to budge, at least for her strength. Growling curses that were unheard in the tumult, the gnome looked rapidly up and down the balcony; neither combatant seemed about to budge. Rhadid’s suit was a mass of smoldering scorch marks, but the man himself was now grinning in uncontained glee, an unsettling contrast to his normally composed demeanor. Rather than backing away, he began to take small steps toward the soldiers.

Then, suddenly, he staggered. He recovered quickly, but immediately stumbled to the side as if he’d been pushed. His grin turning to a snarl, Rhadid whipped out his rapier with his free hand and swung it in two wide arcs around himself, slicing nothing but air. This marked the first two seconds in which he was not actively firing his wand, and Roscoe shrieked a ceasefire order to her squad.

“Rafe,” Rhadid spat, then abruptly buckled completely, doubling over with a whoof of outgoing breath as if something had struck him in the midsection.

“Rush him!” Roscoe shouted, and the troops surged forward, stamping past Billie and Eric. That proved less than wise, as their active shielding charms prevented them grappling physically with him and Rhadid was the only one present with a bladed weapon. At least it ended the firefight flashing past overhead, however, and Billie surged upright, ignoring the ongoing struggle now that her survival wasn’t at stake.

“Foxpaw’s knickers, if I wasn’t such a sporting type I’d’a ditched your heavy butt already,” she growled, prodding Eric’s shoulder roughly with her foot. “Dungeon’s no place fer a bleedin’ librarian. C’mon, man, we need ta hey!”

The gnome was suddenly hiked bodily into the air by some invisible force. A moment later Eric, despite his weight, found himself pulled half-upright by a grip on his collar and then dragged down the balcony by the same entity causing Billie to hover alongside him.

“Y’mind awfully not doin’ that?” a disembodied voice requested as she squirmed and kicked. “Sorry about the manhandling, but I’m tryin’ to get you guys outta the stew, here.”

“Oh, aye?” She managed to get a grip on the invisible arm holding her, and ceased her thrashing. “Thanks fer the assist, then, but I can walk.”

“Can’t breathe,” Eric wheezed. In fairness, being pulled by the collar from behind did press his tie fairly hard against his throat. In moments, though, they were hauled around the corner of a bookshelf and into a small reading nook with a comfy chair, a lamp, and a window out onto the misty Vrandis pine forest outside.

Eric pulled at his collar, gasping, as soon as the invisible hand was no longer tugging on it, and Billie floated over to the chair to be set carefully upright on the cushions.

“Right,” she said, brushing herself off. “That’s done. An’ you are?”

He flickered into view, lowering a glass vial from his lips. The man’s lean face broke into a grin the moment he had swallowed the potion.

“Owl!” Eric cried, seeming to forget his discomfort. “Light’s grace, I thought you were dead!”

“Sorry for stressing you,” the thief said cheerfully. “You weren’t the one I set out to fool, but there was no way around it, I’m afraid.”

“But…but how?” the dwarf sputtered.

“Funny story! I woke up in that guest room and what should I find in my pocket but a set of clearly-labeled vials of invisibility potions and their antidotes. As I mentioned to you, my ass was the next on Rhadid’s chopping block, so I took the opportunity to set off that big, heavy rock trap in the courtyard and then disappear before he could decide to disappear me.”

Eric paused in rubbing his throat, frowning. “Wait, so… Rafe?”

“Had to’ve been,” Owl said with a shrug. “Guess the boy’s not as daffy as he acts, which I kinda figured.”

“Nobody could function an’ be as daffy as he acts,” Billie remarked.

“I won’t lie,” Owl added, “I was mostly upset to find out he’s a better pickpocket than me. Although I think I’ve just reclaimed the title.”

“But where have you been?” Eric asked. “Surely you weren’t wandering in the Manor alone?”

“Not the whole time, no; even with help, it’s no cakewalk to get around in here.”

Billie raised her eyebrows. “Help?”

“Oh, right,” Owl grinned. “Well, like any good little boy whose daddy’s gone on a bender, I went and fetched an adult. Oh, and speaking of!”

A few telltale azure sparkles of light had appeared in the air, but the whole thing unfolded far quicker than the average teleport spell; Owl barely had time to finish his sentence before the three of them vanished and reappeared elsewhere. They now stood at a corner of the third level of the balcony, within sight of the doors through which they had first entered the library, and there were two more members of the group.

“You found them, well done,” Arachne Tellwyrn said briskly. “I located this one, too, as you can see.”

“Hi, guys!” Admestus said gleefully, waving. “Boy, isn’t this exciting?!”

Eric had only just stood up when the mage teleported them. Now, he abruptly and heavily sat back down.

Below them, the sounds of battle changed in quality as the combatants apparently separated again. The scuffling paused, followed a moment later by the crack and flash of a wand firing, followed by the much heavier reply of a battlestaff, and then another.

“Excuse me,” Tellwyrn said, baring her teeth ominously, and vanished.

They immediately heard her voice again—at a distance, but raised to a screech of fury. Gehirnverweigererin!” Another flash of light burst from the balcony below them, this time clearly not caused by lightning, swiftly followed by the shouting of soldiers and Lieutenant Roscoe shrilly starting to demand something in the name of the Empress, immediately cut off by Tellwyrn roaring at a volume clearly augmented by magic. “Weapons are a privilege, as is life! And you lose both when you start SHOOTING UP A LIBRARY!”

When she reappeared a moment later, all of them instinctively backed away, which was for the good as Tellwyrn arrived with a large armload of books in tow. Scorched, damaged, and in some cases completely falling apart books. They hovered unsupported in the air around her as she got down to work. The battlestaves she had collected from the Imperial soldiers clattered to the ground, unattended.

Walls of blue light snapped into place around them, blocking off the group within an arcane shield, and Tellwyrn sat down on the carpet with a furious mutter of “Hosenscheisserin!” She began poring over the damaged volumes with gentle movements of her hands and harsh flickers of arcane magic, carefully knitting pages back together, wiping away scorch marks, and restoring them bit by bit.

“Wunderbar!” Eric said, clapping his hands in excitement. Tellwyrn ignored him, but the others stared, and he shrugged awkwardly. “It’s Old Stalweiss, you see. Hasn’t been spoken aloud since Diristaan’s day. I took five years of it as an elective in undergrad school!”

“That is the most you thing I can imagine anyone doing,” said Owl.

Below them, still out of sight, there were ongoing crashes and shouts as Rhadid carried on struggling with the soldiers. His wand had not appeared among their confiscated weapons, but there were no more lightning bolts. Clearly, the nobleman had got the message.

“Eh, pardon me fer askin’,” said Billie, “but is there somethin’ more urgent you could maybe be doin’ at this—”

“Be silent or be silenced,” Tellwyrn barked, not looking up from her work.

“Let the woman concentrate, Billie,” Admestus admonished. “Have you ever tried to reconstitute burned paper out of the very atmosphere? Seconds count!”

She threw up her hands and plunked herself down in the opposite corner from Eric.

A tremendous, singular clatter echoed abruptly through the library as thick wooden shutters, bound and braced by iron frames, slammed up out of the floors to lock away the contents of every single bookcase.

“Oh, now you’re protective of the collection,” Tellwyrn muttered acidly while still laboring to restore the damaged books. “This is why there are always hooligans running rampant in your house, you know. You never take care of your things in the first place!”

“Really, though,” Owl said, a bit gingerly. “Should we be…doing something? That officer seems like a bit of a tosser, but between her and Lord Rhadid, she’s not the casual murderer who’s apparently plotting world domination.”

“Oh, please,” Tellwyrn sneered. “I’ll get my hands dirty when something important is going down. There’s always some twit who thinks some magical gewgaw he’s found is going to make him the master of the universe. I should tell you how I got these spectacles sometime. You would not believe what their previous owner was doing. Those clods always end up the same way.”

“Yeah, seriously, we can take a break,” Admestus said cheerfully, rapping on the wall of arcane light with his knuckles and causing ripples of luminescence to spread from it. “We’re all safe and sound in Auntie Arachne’s bubble, and his Lordship specifically is not something we need to be worried about. Speaking as the person who set all this up, take the opportunity to grab a well-earned breather.”

“Set all this up, huh,” Billie said, giving him a very flat look.

“Oh!” Eric perked up. “Does that mean you arranged for Tamara to be here, too? Will we also find her safe and well?”

“Yes and no,” Rafe said with a shrug. “Yes in that she was along because I convinced Rhadypants we needed some muscle and recommended her for the job. And no, her ass is grass, as was the point. That was a really simple potion to brew! Combine Rhadid Daraspian and a tetchy, thick-skulled thug in one sapient dungeon, bring to a low simmer, and hey presto! Rhadid shows his arse right off the bat, and Manor Dire knows what to expect from him.”

They all stared at the half-elf, who gazed back with a placid smile and an arched eyebrow.

“So you were settin’ up yer boss fer this whole fiasco from the beginning?” Billie finally asked.

“Hah!” Rafe straightened up and struck a pose. “Never doubt it! Where there is a villain scheming to overthrow the just and virtuous rule of our fair Empress, there is a Rafe to thwart him! With cunning! With panache! With an exquisitely tight butt in only the most fashionable pants!”

“Your father didn’t belt you nearly enough,” Tellwyrn muttered.

“Why are you like this?!” Eric burst out. “Why can’t you just—just be a— Why aren’t you normal?”

Even Tellwyrn looked up at that, staring at Admestus over the rims of her spectacles. He started to scoff, but then actually subsided, his expression growing more sober under the weight of their combined stares. At last, he shrugged lopsidedly.

“I feel like you’re all fishing for some kind of grand revelation that just isn’t there. Not everybody can be a respected academic who fits in at a glance, Professor. Or a legendary, cantankerous archmage who everybody’s afraid to mess with, also Professor. People see a half-elf and it brings out the asshole in most of ’em. If everyone’s going to draw bullshit conclusions at first sight, things generally go better for me if they’re the bullshit conclusions I want.” He shrugged again. “That’s all.”

“Fact remains,” Owl said, “you deliberately led Tamara here to die. That’s not any different from what Daraspian did to her.”

“Yeah?” Admestus snorted, showing no hint of his usual theatrical ebullience. “Two years ago, Tamara beat the hell out of a fourteen-year-old kid I was tutoring. Stole his alchemy equipment to pawn, threw his textbook in the canal, and made a point of breaking his glasses. I hope Tammykins appreciates being peacefully dead instead of shrunk to three inches tall and left on the kitchen counter in the neighborhood cat lady’s apartment, because that was my first plan. Bitch was the worst kind of useless back-alley thug: the kind even the Guild wouldn’t take. If she hadn’t run afoul of me and Rhadid it was just a matter of time before some Eserite cut off her fingers.”

Owl grunted and shrugged, seeming entirely mollified by that. “All right, fair enough.”

“Hey, the violence seems to’ve died down,” Billie noted. “Who wants ta bet they sat down, ‘ad a nice calm discussion an’ worked out their differences?”

“One human’s coming up the nearest staircase,” Tellwyrn grunted, again focused on the books. “Daraspian, I think.”

Her elvish ears were correct, though it took them a few more seconds to verify it. Rhadid stomped toward them, his face wreathed in a furious snarl.

“You,” he spat, ineffectually stabbing the barrier with his sword. “You little vermin!”

“Well, damn,” Billie drawled, unimpressed. “Somebody needs ‘is nappy changed.”

“Oh, he’s probably just tetchy that I lifted this,” Owl said with a grin, reaching into his coat pocket. He pulled out a glass vial with a lead stopper, containing a sluggish purple liquid.

Rafe began laughing so hard he had to sit down.

With a visible effort, Rhadid suppressed his rage, even taking a moment to sheath his blade, smooth his hair back, and straighten his suit, though that last touch was particularly ineffectual as it was burned almost to shreds by repeated lightning blasts.

“Very well, I see the scales have tipped. You are in a position to make considerable demands of me, and I am in a position to bestow considerable wealth and favor upon each of you. So let us discuss how much we can arrange for you all to profit from giving back what is mine.”

“Ohh, buddy,” Rafe chortled, wiping away tears. “I don’t think you get it, Rhad. You were just shot a bunch of times.”

“Yes, and thanks to your brewing skill, I stand before you unscathed,” the nobleman said evenly. “I am impressed, Admestus. It is therefore worth a great deal to me to recover access to that potion.”

“And anyone actually smart enough to overthrow the Empire and conquer the world would’ve hovered and read over my shoulder instead of prowling around the adjacent rooms. That is a limited anti-death potion, Lordy boy. Limited. All magic is subjective physics—within limits. No alchemist, no wizard, no god can simply wipe away causality. Just…suspend it.”

Rhadid opened his mouth to reply, then utterly froze. The color drained from his face.

“Honestly, I coulda just fed you hemlock, but I really wanted to see if I could actually make that potion. And I wasn’t gonna shed any tears if you stabbed Roscoe; I really don’t care for her attitude.”

“Rafe,” Rhadid hissed, impotently clenching his fists.

Rafe made a production of drawing a pocket watch from his waistcoat, consulting it, and grinning. The snap of the watch’s lid closing carried a note of finality, somewhat spoiled by the alchemist waggling his fingers flirtatiously at his erstwhile employer. “It’s been a party, Rhadid. Tell Tamara I pointed and laughed!”

A single staffshot was enough electricity to inflict severe burns and overload the nervous system. As it turned out, the simultaneous result of several dozen abruptly catching up to someone who had temporarily suspended their effects amounted to a torrent of power that, for one second, glowed like the sun, and left behind little more than bones charred black. What remained of Rhadid Daraspian tumbled against the arcane shield and shattered to fall in jumbled fragments to the balcony floor.

Eric doubled over and was loudly sick.

“Charming,” Tellwyrn grunted. “Does it mean nothing to any of you that this is a god damned library?”

“Welp,” Owl said with a sigh. “Guess that means we’re not gettin’ paid.”


What little remained of the joint expedition to Manor Dire was much quicker and quieter, though not devoid of surprises.

Lieutenant Roscoe was among the three surviving soldiers, barely; at some point she had taken a rapier clear through her torso in three different places. The remains of her squad weren’t in much better shape. Compared to her previous attitude, she was very subdued after Rafe had administered healing potions. After rendering medical aid, the rest of the group left the Imperials to tend to their fallen.

Nobody bothered to say aloud that if Manor Dire was judging them by their ability to handle these events without resorting to brute violence, the gnomes had quite decisively won. Steinway, Woodsworth, and Sassafrass did not re-emerge from wherever they had hidden during the showdown, but Billie, who stuck with the rest of the survivors on their way out of the Manor, blithely assured everyone they were fine.

The next surprise came when the protective shutters over the bookcases abruptly withdrew, to reveal…nothing. Every shelf in the library was completely bare.

Tellwyrn withdrew a bag of holding from inside her vest, peeked inside it, and then smiled the self-satisfied smile of a well-fed housecat. “Ah.”

“Ohh,” Owl drawled while Eric was still groping, aghast, at an empty shelf. “I get it. New University and all, it must take a whole lotta time, effort, an’ money to put together a proper collection for the library. Unless you got a friend who’s about to put his place under new management an’ needs to clear up space on the shelves. That’s what this whole thing was about for you, isn’t it? The sweeping, the five-hundred-year-old dead language only Diristaan would know…”

“Oh, please,” she snorted, “I hardly need to suck up to Diristaan; I taught the boy everything he knew. Well,” she added pensively, “not the bit about achieving immortality by diffusing his consciousness into a non-discrete edifice. It would never occur to me to even contemplate such an asshat thing. Still.” In passing through the library doors, she paused to affectionately pat the door frame. “I always was fond of the lad. It’s been nice, being able to visit here and just relax, when I have time.”

“Aye, well, we gnomes aren’t big inta control an’ dominance,” said Billie. “This whole bit about competin’ fer rights to the place, that was the Manor’s idea, not ours. If me kin are gonna be a bigger presence ’round ‘ere goin’ forward, they’ll just be explorin’ an’ appreciatin’ the house. You of all people’ll be more welcome ‘ere than ever.”

“Oh, good,” Tellwyrn said with a sigh. “So much for peace and quiet.”

It seemed that Manor Dire was done playing games with them. The path from the library back to the entrance was direct, logical, and took all of ten minutes, without a trap or puzzle to be seen, much less any patches of confusing astral void. With nearly disorienting suddenness, they found themselves back in the long, rustic entry hall, facing the front doors to the mundane world outside.

“I would just like to say,” Eric spoke up suddenly, “that this trip has been the fulfillment of a lifelong dream for me, and…and it has not disappointed, despite all the frankly horrible things we’ve endured in the process. I’m grateful to the Manor and its master for indulging one archaeologist’s curiosity and not punishing his, ah, lack of adventuring qualifications any more than necessary. And it has been both a pleasure and an honor to work alongside each and every one of you.” He hesitated, then smiled. “Even the homicidally unhinged ones.”

“D’aww,” Rafe cooed. “We love you too, big guy!” The half-elf broke off with a yelp as Billie pinched his butt.

“Hey, you,” Tellwyrn said, turning to him. “Want a job?”

Admestus gaped at her.

“I need an alchemy teacher,” she said bluntly. “I caught my longstanding one diddling one of the students, so he’s exploring the reaches of Suffering until she graduates. And I’m not thrilled with the guy I got to replace him. He’s competent and all, but… You’re clearly one of the best there is at what you do, if you managed to brew this.” She held up the nearly full vial of limited anti-death potion.

“Dammit!” Owl exclaimed, clapping a hand over his coat pocket. “I’m the Eserite here! Why the hell am I only the third-best pickpocket?”

“Sounds like a personal problem,” Billie said solicitously. “Are ye gettin’ enough veggies? May be a fiber issue.”

“Just as important,” Tellwyrn continued, ignoring them with her gaze still on Rafe, “you have a proven will to murder the hell out of anyone who harms one of your students. That’s everything I look for in a teacher. I’m willing to fire the chump I’ve got right now if you’re in.”

“Are you kidding?” Rafe squealed. “I am so in I can’t even think of an off-color metaphor, and that’s about a sentence hinging on the word ‘in’ for fuck’s sake! You just tell me when to start and—”

“Semester begins in three weeks,” she interrupted. “You’ll need to do some orientation beforehand. In fact…yeah. You have twenty-four hours to get your ass to Last Rock without my help. Consider that your final interview.”

“Then consider my ass hired!” Wasting not another moment, Admestus Rafe turned and pelted off down the great entry hall of Manor Dire, barely pausing to throw the front doors wide before charging through them and out into the world, leaving only his voice echoing behind. “Onward to glory!”

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Bonus #49: Lightning in a Bottle, part 2

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“A family friend,” she said brusquely. “Name’s Arachne, I’m sure your parents mentioned me.”

“Hang on a second,” Tamara said. “I could swear that elf just said her name was Arachne.”

“She did,” Lord Rhadid replied softly. “Without evidence, to be sure, but the description matches. Spectacles and all. You did not mention you were acquainted with such an august personage, Admestus.”

“Whoah, now,” Admestus said, holding up both hands placatingly. “Come on, m’lord, it’s me. Do you honestly think if I knew somebody like the Tellwyrn her Tellself I wouldn’t have spent fully half the time you’ve known me bragging about it non-stop? I have no idea what she’s talking about, my parents never mentioned her.”

“Also,” Owl said idly, “we don’t actually know this is—”

“What the hell do you mean they never mentioned me?” the elf roared. “After all the— That stuck up pair of goody-goodies thought didn’t bother to… No, you know what, that’s actually fair. If I were trying to raise a level-headed child I would keep them away from terrible influences like myself.”

“If that’s what they were trying it didn’t work,” Tamara opined.

“I say,” Eric offered hesitantly. “Are you, in fact, the archmage Arachne Tellwyrn?”

“You doubt me?” she asked, raising an eyebrow. “Anywhere else I could demonstrate very easily, but I just swept that floor.”

“It’s just that…well, that,” he said. “You’re…sweeping the floor. When one thinks of legendary wizards, one tends not to envision them performing menial servant work.”

“It’s very calming,” she explained. “Meditative. And in here, nobody bothers me. Even the adventurers know to mind their damn business in Manor Dire. I’ve been coming here to straighten up for the last ten years, during semester breaks. It’s a nice change from herding students and the Manor seems to appreciate it. Regardless! I doubt very much any of you have anything to offer me but annoyance. Whatever a random pack of adventurers up to is by definition less interesting to me than the fact that little Admestus is running around dungeons with a random pack of adventurers. Young man, I have killed an emperor and a god, toppled multiple nations and publicly spanked a Hand of Avei. I will not hesitate to tattle on you to your mother.”

“Hold it,” Admestus bellowed, holding up an imperious hand. “We can continue that line of blather in a moment. I need to make something explicitly clear.” Stepping to the side, he planted himself in a wide stand and turned to face his companions. “Nothing about Admestus is in any way little. I’m sure you know what I mean.” In case there was any doubt, he pointed with both hands at his belt buckle. “Eh? Eh? If I am still unclear, I’m willing to arrange a demonstration. Specially for you, sugar lips,” he added, winking at Owl.

There was silence.

“If I may,” Lord Rhadid said after an excruciating pause. “Ms. Tellwyrn—”

“It’s Professor,” she said, “if you insist on being formal.”

“The rumors are true, then?” Eric asked. “You actually founded a school for adventurers?”

“It is not a school for adventurers,” she spat. “And just what do you mean, rumors? We’ve been taking students for thirteen years!”

“Oh, uh, I…” The dwarf tried to edge behind Tamara, who immediately stepped away.

“Professor Tellwyrn,” Rhadid continued with all the calm grace of a man who was not being continually interrupted by an impromptu sideshow. “I understand you are concerned for the well-being of a family friend; that is quite laudable. Rest assured that this group is not a roving band of treasure-seekers. I am a scion of House Daraspian, which holds hereditary title to these lands; I regard Manor Dire with the deepest respect and my business here is a solemn affair indeed.”

“Daraspian, huh,” she grunted. “Bunch of troublemakers even by noble standards. None of that has anything to do with me… Rhadid, was it?”

His Lordship did not react to the insult in the slightest. “It is. You mistake me, Professor; I would not attempt to impress one such as you with my title. I am explaining that this is a serious archaeological expedition. This is Professor Eric Ahlstrom, the leading expert now alive on the history of this dungeon.”

“Ahlstrom?” She fixed her gaze on the dwarf, tilting her head to look over the rims of her glasses at him. “I confess I didn’t believe it when Admestus introduced you.”

“Oh, that hurt,” Admestus protested.

“I read your books,” Tellwyrn continued, ignoring him. “Very thorough material, and a lot less dry than the general run of academic texts.”

“Oh!” Eric blinked. “I…well, thank you! That is extremely flattering, Ms… Ah, that is, Professor.”

“Rest assured,” said Rhadid, “our purpose here is academic. We are all well-informed as to the nature of the Manor and every care will be taken to avoid antagonizing it. You may inform Admestus’s parents, when next you see them, that he has become involved with reputable intellectual undertakings, not crass dungeon delvers.”

“I’ll inform them of whatever I think, which isn’t that,” she snorted, and pointed her broom handle at Tamara. “Reputable intellectual undertakings don’t require the employment of thugs.”

“Oy,” Tamara protested, scowling.

“That simply isn’t true, and I expect you know it,” Rhadid countered with a thin smile.

Tellwyrn grunted, but did not argue the point further, which was probably what passed for agreement in her case. “What exactly is it you’re here after, Rhadid?”

“That is family business,” he answered calmly, “and with all due respect, none of yours.”

“House Daraspian’s ‘family’ business is an open secret,” she said. “It’s also neither academic nor intellectual.”

Rhadid smiled again. “Perhaps Admestus was remiss in his introductions. Tamara is, indeed, hired muscle and nothing more…”

“Oy!” she snapped.

“…but the gentleman to my right is Owl, a fully accredited and tagged member of the Thieves’ Guild. I hired him for this expedition due to his noted expertise on the matter of traps and locks, but I should think that a formal Eserite presence in my party rules out the prospect that I am here in pursuit of the kind of dealings for which my House is…somewhat justifiably notorious.”

“Hm.” She transferred a skeptical stare to Owl. “Wouldn’t be the first crooked Eserite I’ve ever known…”

“All systems are corrupt,” he agreed, shrugging. “Not excluding the Guild itself. For what it’s worth, Lord Rhadid checks out. Never been involved in any Daraspian shit that would make the Guild rule out dealing with him. Underboss Whatsit signed off on me taking this job. Full disclosure, I’m here to keep an eye on this as much as for the payout.”

“Oh, pweeeease?” Admestus whined, folding his hands pleadingly and giving the elf his best puppy dog eyes. “Pwease, Auntie Tattlewyrn, can I play with my friends? I promise to put up all my toys afterward!”

She flicked her fingers at him and what happened to the tip of his ear was somewhat reminiscent of the way his mother flicked it when she was annoyed—but also of a firework, given that it hurt ten times as much and was accompanied by a bright spark of arcane magic, not to mention the brief smell of burning hair. Tellwyrn turned her attention back to Rhadid while Admestus tumbled to the ground, clutching his head and howling dramatically.

“I’ll tell you what,” the elf said, folding her arms and leaving the broom to stand upright on its own. “If you get the boy killed, make sure you’re the next to go, because that option will be worlds better than what will happen to you if you come out of here alive and he doesn’t. His family are nice, well-behaved people who’ve never offended so much as a fly. That makes me twice as vindictive in their defense. Understand?”

“Thoroughly,” Rhadid replied, inclining his head in acknowledgment. “Though I have no reason to expect it will come to that, or I would obviously not have risked it in the first place.”

“Why are we arguing, exactly?” Tamara asked, looking down at Admestus with her lip curled in contempt. “Just let her take him home. Do we really need this assclown?”

“Considerably more than we need you, as I have already explained,” Rhadid told her curtly. “The disparity in your relative value is such that I am less inclined to interrupt his tantrum than to make you carry him till he is done with it.”

“As long as we all understand each other,” Tellwyrn said, fixing Admestus with a glare. “Get up, you little reprobate. I will be reporting on this to your family. Is this what you want your father to hear of you doing?”

He stopped rolling, lifting his hands from his head to peek up at her. “Kinda? Guy needs to unclench a little, you ask me. A bit of embarrassment now and again’s good for his circulation. At least, that’s what I’ve been telling myself from the cradle on.”

“Just quit,” Tamara growled, grabbing him by the collar again and hauling him upright. “If you can’t act like a sane person, at least act like a person, would you?”

“What?” he simpered at her. “And pass up the chance to be carried in your strong, protective arms?”

“If you’re not going to go out the way you came, get on with it, then,” Tellwyrn ordered, grabbing her broom and making a shooing gesture at them with it. “You’re tracking who knows what mess all over my nice clean floors. Admestus, visit home as soon as you’re done here, you know your mother worries and you’ve doubtless given her enough gray hairs already. And Professor Ahlstrom, do write me at Last Rock at your convenience. We’re a small institution with no dedicated archaeology department, but I’d be delighted to have you as a guest lecturer. I pay well.”

“Oh!” he said, blinking in surprise. “That’s… Why, thank you, Professor Tellwyrn, I believe I may take you up on that.”

“A good day to you then, Professor,” Rhadid said politely. “Come along, all.”

They carried on down the hallway, and the sound of sweeping resumed as soon as they had moved a few yards. It cut off abruptly when they rounded the next corner, though. Lord Rhadid silently called a halt with a gesture, and Admestus peeked back around the corner. It led to a completely different stretch of hallway, now.

“Well, how about that,” Owl mused once they had continued on. “The great Arachne Tellwyrn unwinds as a volunteer housemaid in one of the great dungeons. Not something I would’ve expected to find out, but damn if it doesn’t make a certain kinda sense.”

“I still dunno why you’re all convinced that was Tellwyrn,” Tamara grunted.

“She is either Tellwyrn or is going to come to a sticky end for impersonating her,” Rhadid said evenly. “I am inclined to believe the former, for several reasons. It makes no difference for our purposes, regardless. Owl, please join the Professor at the front. We will doubtless begin to encounter more surprises the deeper we go, and I want his expertise on the house and yours on any traps to guide us.”

“As you wish, m’lord,” Owl said noncommittally, quickening his pace to join Eric while Rhadid fell behind.

“Do you wish to try examining any of these doorways, Lord Rhadid?” Eric asked. The hall in which they now walked was wider and more ornate; the doors were of polished wood, and rather than bare stone walls and occasional torches there were iron sconces containing candles with mirrored backings, plus low tables and display cases showing off a variety of decorative objects interspersed with the doors along one side of the hall.

Rhadid came to a stop, turning in a slowly circle to critically examine their surroundings.

“In your opinion, Professor, would that speed our progress?”

“It’s…hard to say, my lord,” Eric replied, frowning in thought. “I think the most efficient approach would be a balanced one: taking time to explore, but moving steadily forward. I would caution you not to display too much impatience. The Manor is likely to perceive excessive eagerness to access its treasures, and won’t reward that attitude.”

“I see,” Rhadid said, his tone neutral. “What if—”

Immediately behind them, a door opened and a zombie stepped out.

The thing moved with amazing speed for a corpse that looked too desiccated to stand upright. They all turned at the soft creak of the door opening, to find it already coming at them in long strides, clutching something at waist level with both hands and emitting a gurgling moan.

Tamara reacted just as fast, shoving past Admestus even as she yanked the greatsword from its scabbard across her back. She brought the weapon down in an overhead slash that flowed straight from the act of unsheathing it, sending the undead tumbling backward in multiple pieces.

“Swiftly done,” Lord Rhadid said approvingly.

“Oh, no,” Eric whispered, aghast. “Why did you do that?”

“What the fuck are you on about?” Tamara demanded, rounding on him. “We were just attacked by a fucking skeleton! I did my job.”

“Um.” Owl bent to pick up the object the zombie had been carrying: a silver serving tray. Beside it lay several shot glasses, all but one broken in the fall, and a miraculously un-cracked bottle of brandy. “I don’t…think it was attacking us.”

“Is that zombie wearing a suit?” Admestus asked, peering over his shoulder. “It is! That looks like medieval formal livery! Aw, look how dashing he is!”

The fallen zombie, though bisected at the waist and with its left arm separated just below the shoulder, opened its lipless mouth to moan again.

“It’s a servant,” Eric exclaimed. “It was offering us drinks!”

Mirroring the undead’s groan, a low noise sounded through the house, a deep moan of straining woodwork. As if the Manor itself were voicing a protest.

“Oh, now you’ve done it,” Admestus remarked fatalistically. “Now you’ve really gone and done it.”

Fortunately none of them were standing in the path of the abrupt scenery change which immediately followed; rather than the subtle alteration the Manor had used to change their path behind them, this was swift, physical, and violent. Segments of the corridor’s walls behind and ahead of them slammed across the hallway, impacting the opposite walls with a deeply ominous boom and sealing the group in a space barely ten feet long.

“Professor,” Lord Rhadid said with impressive calm, “your thoughts?”

“I’m sorry, I would have warned you,” Eric babbled, “but you have to understand, meeting friendly agents of the household is most unusual and they are described more often as spectral than biologically undead, and besides, no adventurer’s account describes encountering a Manor servant this early on! They occasionally appear later in an excursion, when an explorer has passed multiple trials—”

His Lordship raised his voice to interrupt. “Professor. Fault can be discussed when we are not trapped like rats. Have you any thoughts on remedying this situation?”

“Oh. Um, I…yes.” Eric ran a trembling hand over his beard. “Well. That is, no precise parallel occurs to me, but, I think, generally…”

“How ’bout we try apologizing and asking nicely?” Owl suggested.

“Leave it to me!” Admestus proclaimed, swaggering forward to stand before the section of wall which had emerged to block their path. He cleared his throat, straightened his lapels, and ran a hand over his hair, then flung himself to his knees with a wail of dismay. “OH GODS I’M SORREEEE! It was all an accident, we didn’t mean to kill the zombie. SHE DID IT! HER!” He pointed behind him with one hand in Tamara’s general direction, pawing obsequiously at the wall with the other. “This is a terrible misunderstanding! Oh, gods, I don’t wanna die like thiiiiissss…”

He trailed off, bawling at the top of his lungs, alternately drumming on the wall with his fists and kissing it.

“Stop it, Admestus,” Rhadid ordered. “Professor Ahlstrom, I am waiting.”

“Right,” Eric said unsteadily. “Well, as a general rule, the Manor is not unreasonable; accidents occur under pressure. Owl has the right of it, in fact. When one errs, a good faith effort to make amends will do much to restore the house’s good graces.”

“How?” Tamara demanded, pointing with her still-unsheathed sword at the fallen zombie. It was groaning intermittently, its torso flopping this way and that, seemingly too weak to move in a goal-directed fashion with only one arm. Unsettlingly, its other arm and disconnected legs were both shifting feebly as well.

“Well,” said Rhadid, “that seems a start. Admestus, time to earn your salary.”

Admestus broke off licking the wall to look inquisitively at him. “I…I thought I was. You…you want me to seduce the house? I don’t know, I’ve never gotten it on with an edifice. But hey, if it’s for the good of the—”

“Enough!” Rhadid barked, showing the first open irritation he had betrayed this far. “Get over there and fix that creature, and cease your asinine noisemaking!”

“How the hell is this load gonna fix a busted zombie?” Tamara asked skeptically while Admestus scuttled over to the fallen undead without further comment. “I seriously doubt he can put on his pants unassisted.”

“Can’t,” Admestus agreed, having arrived at the zombie’s side in a slide on his knees, already reaching into the pouches attached to his belt of holding for his supplies. “That’s why I make it a point never to have my pants off alone. Well, one reason. Okay, little buddy, you just hang in there. Uncle Rafe’s gonna make it all better.”

Another low moan sounded around them—not from the zombie, but the house. This time, the floorboards actually shivered beneath their feet.

“Quickly, please,” Lord Rhadid suggested.

“Excuse me,” Eric protested, “but it’s a known principle that you cannot raise or significantly modify undead using alchemy alone. Any method of practical necromancy requires the active use of at least two of the four schools of magic, and most call for shadow magic as well!”

“It is for good and specific reason that I chose this imbecile as my alchemical specialist,” Rhadid replied calmly.

“Stop, I’m gonna blush!” Admestus trilled, even as he worked. Pulling the fragments of the zombie back together was the easy part; holding them in the right position proved more challenging, when the creature wouldn’t stop its weak thrashing. “Listen, guy, you’re gonna have to hold still. If I gotta immobilize you it’s just gonna mess you up even more.”

The zombie groaned, turning its mouthful of crooked, yellow teeth in his direction, but actually stopped wriggling. At least, its torso did.

“Reflex action, huh?” Admestus grunted, wrestling the still-twitching arm into place after pulling both ends of its sleeve apart. “’sokay, I can work with this…”

While he hadn’t attempted this specific feat before, he was no stranger to working rapidly, under pressure, and in adverse conditions. Admestus swiftly bound the two pieces of severed arm together with curse-briar twigs and enchantment-grade copper wire, liberally sprayed the resulting makeshift splint with a solution of skeleton dust and dilute panacea potion which he mixed in a small perfume bottle, and finally applied one drop of unicorn tear to reactivate the briars. Immediately they began to spread, twining up and down the zombie’s emaciated arm until its broken part was encased in a cast of rough, dark wood, the enchanting wires completely buried within.

“Okay, how’s that work?” he asked, ignoring both the nervous faces peering over his shoulder and another rattle of the floorboards. “You got a full range of motion? Cos, full disclosure, I’m kinda spitballing here and if that’s not holding together I’ll obviously wanna try something different on the other bit.”

The zombie carefully flexed its arm, seemingly without effort. Then it formed a thumbs up with the reattached hand and moaned wetly at him.

“All right!” Admestus said cheerfully. “We are in business! Tammy, babe, I’m gonna need you to hold his legs down.”

“I’m not touching that fucking thing,” she snapped.

“Omnu’s balls,” Owl grunted, dropping to the floor beside Admestus to help wrestle the still-kicking legs into position. “We don’t have time for this.”

Fortunately the zombie was skeletal enough that only its lower spine needed to be repaired to rejoin the two halves of its body. Minutes later, Admestus and Owl were carefully helping it to stand back up.

The undead opened its jaw wide, emitting a long groan.

“You’re welcome, ol’ chap!” Admestus said brightly. “I’d clap you on the back, but…y’know.”

“All right,” Rhadid said, looking around at their enclosure. “I note that the building itself has ceased making threatening noises, but we are still here.”

“Based on all my reading,” said Eric, “this should be…a start. I’m sorry, my lord, it’s out of precedent for us to have been greeted by a house servant this soon in our trek and I frankly don’t know what it signifies that we first botched it and then tried to repair the damage.”

“What do you mean, we?” Owl asked, turning a pointed stare on Tamara. She flipped him off.

“Well, we’re halfway there!” Admestus said cheerily, having picked up the fallen bottle of brandy and sole surviving glass. He poured himself a shot and then held it aloft. “Your health, zombie house!”

They all stared while he tossed it back.

“What are the odds that was poisoned?” Owl asked.

“I told you,” said Eric, “the Manor doesn’t poison people with drink freely offered.”

“Besides,” Admestus added haughtily, “an alchemist is never poisoned. Unthinkable!”

“Nine tenths of the shit you do is unthinkable,” Tamara informed him.

“Anyway,” Eric continued, “this is likely to make our way a little more perilous, at least until we’ve earned back some favor with the house. Forgiven is not forgotten.”

The low groan which resonated through the floorboards was too perfectly timed to have been coincidence. The zombie, now leaning against the wall, added an echoing moan, making an awkward rolling motion with its head that might have been a disjointed nod.

“He came out of here, didn’t he?” Owl stepped past the injured undead to open the only door in this section of the hall with them—as he had said, the one through which the zombie had abruptly emerged minutes ago. The thief poked his head in. “Hey, this looks like a lounge. ‘Splains why a waiter came outta here. There’s another door.”

“Well…there you go,” Eric said nervously, hitching up his satchel upon his shoulders. “Shall we?”

“Tamara,” Lord Rhadid said pointedly, nodding toward the zombie waiter, “is there something you would like to say to our new acquaintance?”

She looked at him, then at the zombie. It groaned at her. Tamara curled her lip and pushed past Owl into the lounge. “I’ll take point.”

The rest followed, Rhadid and Eric both pointedly bowing to the zombie in passing. Through the door was a wood-paneled room longer than it was wide, with several deeply-padded seats and low tables, a roaring hearth along one of its shorter walls and a long bar backed by a sizable stock of bottles against the side. The party moved through it without pausing to appreciate the scenery; the room’s other door was positioned to emerge into the same hallway from which they had just come, past the obstruction the Manor had placed across it.

When they emerged, however, the hallway was clear. It extended emptily in both directions, with no sign of either the barrier walls or the injured zombie.

As if to summarily squash any relief they might have dared to feel, another tremor rumbled through the floorboards, this one accompanied by a low growl that sounded like the product of something alive. The group froze momentarily, then Lord Rhadid turned to Eric.

“Professor?”

“We need to keep moving,” the dwarf said urgently. “It seems we’re not forgiven yet, after all; that must be earned. The faster we go, the more we will encounter, and that will lead to opportunities to impress the Manor positively. But there can be no more incidents like that! If we offend the house again while already on its bad list…”

“You heard the Professor,” Rhadid said firmly, casting a swift glance across the lot of them. “No mistakes from here. You must be fully on alert, but do not act without thinking!”

He finished his instruction staring at Tamara, and then stood there holding her gaze, even as the house groaned beneath them again. Finally she bowed her head, albeit sullenly.

“Understood, Lord Rhadid.”

“Good. Owl, Professor, take the lead again, please, and proceed at such a pace that you do not risk charging into a trap. You,” he pointed at Tamara, “go right behind them. Step forward to defend if and only if Professor Ahlstrom informs you of the necessity. Admestus, with me. Have countermeasures at the ready in case we are flanked, but again, look before acting.”

“Yes, sir, your Lordliness!” Admestus chirped, throwing a deliberately off-kilter salute. “If it’s all the same to you, milord, I shall also think before acting!”

“What the hell is he gonna do?” Tamara grumbled as they started moving up the hall. “Spritz perfume on the next monster?”

“Ooh, now there’s an idea!” Admestus chattered. “Monster perfume! But…what would be the market? There’s something there, I know it, but I’ll have to mull that. Meanwhile, I’ve got this!”

He pulled out a jar which filled the hallway with a clean white glow, causing the whole group to pause and turn back toward him.

“Lightning in a bottle,” he said in answer to the unasked question.

“Okay, but…not literally, though, right?” Eric replied.

Admestus stared at him without expression and replied tonelessly. “Everything I have ever said has been completely literal.”

The house shuddered around them. Several nearby doors rattled in their frames.

“Move,” Rhadid ordered, and they set off up the hall again.

“Now that you mention perfume,” Admestus added, “I do have a spray bottle full of flesh-dissolving acid!”

“I recommend you stop making statements which our host might construe as threats,” Eric advised.

“Pshaw, what, little old me? I’m the genius who put the waiter back together, remember? I’m officially the house’s favorite person here. It knows I’m harmless! Don’cha, ol’ girl?”

He patted a doorframe in passing, then leaped away across the hall with a yelp when the door jerked inward, revealing that both it and its frame were lined with jagged fangs, and then slammed back shut.

“Did you see that?” Tamara yelled. “It tried to bite him! The fucking house tried to bite him!”

“You gotta figure most of the people he meets get to that point sooner or later,” Own remarked.

“Wait,” Rhadid ordered, and they came to a stop, watching him. The group pulled a bit closer together as another distinctly animal growl sounded from within the walls—a very, very large one, the noise coming from both sides of the hallway and seeming to move as if whatever made it was progressing through the rooms nearby. Only Rhadid kept complete composure, standing somewhat apart from the group.

He stepped across the hall and back two yards to another door, and carefully tried the latch.

Fortunately for him, Rhadid had not been boasting about his credentials; his reflexes were not those of a man who lived comfortably on inherited wealth. He no sooner touched the latch than retreated, and thus was out of range when the door burst inward and a gigantic forked tongue lashed out across the hallway to strike the opposite wall. The door was also lined with fangs—bigger ones, this time—and emitted a truly deafening ursine roar before slamming shut again.

The floorboards trembled more violently beneath them, and suddenly, all the torches lining this stretch of hallway flickered out.

“If anyone is wondering,” Admestus announced, “the damp stain spreading on my pants is from my reagent bottles. Cork must’ve come loose.”

Lord Rhadid drew his sword, turning back to study the group thoughtfully, running his eyes over each of them. Then he nodded once as if deciding something and strode forward. “Very good, I have an idea. Everyone, step away from that door.” He pointed with his rapier at another one on the same side of the hall as the door which he had just narrowly escaped. “Tamara, try the latch.”

“Are you joking?” she demanded.

“No,” Rhadid said calmly, as if that were a perfectly serious question, and came to a stop right alongside her. “I will be right here with you, don’t worry. I know what I am doing.”

“I don’t know what you’re doing,” she snapped. “What’s your bloody great idea?”

The floor actually rippled beneath them, causing Eric and Admestus to stumble. For a moment the hardwood had surged like the surface of a disturbed pool; in the aftermath it was left firm as ever and undamaged. Another hungry growl resounded, this time definitely from the door Rhadid had indicated.

“The first step,” he said evenly, “was to hire a mercenary with the understanding that she would not be paid if she did not follow my orders.”

Tamara held his stare, her jaw muscles working; Rhadid simply gazed dispassionately back.

“This had better work,” she growled at last, turning to the door and drawing one of her wands. “Whatever the fuck this even is, it had better work. Ready?”

“When you are,” Rhadid replied, nodding.

She swallowed once, held her wand up at the ready, and with her other hand, reached out and turned the latch.

Tamara immediately jumped back, barely avoiding the meaty tongue which flopped out at her. The tooth-lined door frame snapped repeatedly, roaring loudly enough to disturb her hair.

Rhadid stepped back at the same time, then once again to place himself behind her. As Tamara dodged to the side, he nimbly shifted and planted a powerful snap kick right in the small of her back, knocking her off-balance and straight into the tongue.

Tamara managed to yell once, and as the fanged door slammed shut behind her there came a flash and snap of her wand discharging. Then silence.

The torches came back on. There was no more growling, no trembling of the floor; just a quiet hallway stretching away in both directions.

Rhadid reached out carefully with his sword, pushing down on the latch of the door that had just eaten Tamara until it clicked and the door, creaking quietly, eased an inch or so inward. He then planted the tip of the sword against the wood and gave it a push. The door swung open to reveal a quiet little study. Nothing but bookshelves lining the walls, and in one corner a desk with an oil lamp atop it, an overstuffed armchair pulled up alongside.

“As I thought,” Lord Rhadid said lightly, sheathing his sword. He stepped over, grasped the latch, and pulled the door gently shut. “The house is perfectly able to distinguish friend from foe. I think we shall have much less trouble from here. Remember to think before acting, everyone, and mind your manners. Well?” With no more ado he strode past them, heading on up the hallways. “On we go.”

The three of them stared after him in silence for a few seconds while the distance between them grew. Then, almost in unison, they hurried to catch up. There was really nothing else they could do.

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Bonus #48: Lightning in a Bottle, part 1

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This chapter topic was requested by Patreon backer Lluazarg!

The talent assembled was carefully selected for dungeoneering, but in this day and age, actually getting into the dungeon required much more mundane gifts: money and influence. And so the four of them stood carefully out of earshot, as their employer had emphatically instructed, watching Lord Rhadid speak privately with the Imperial soldiers who had just instructed them all to clear off.

Though after the first five minutes, only Owl was still paying attention to his Lordship. Tamara had begun pacing restlessly in the road, and Eric was gazing enraptured at the shape of Manor Dire rising from among the pine trees up ahead. Admestus had begun mimicking each of his companions in turn to pass the time; Owl had ignored him and Tamara had just taken a swing at his head, so now he stood alongside the dwarf, in the same posture, staring at the manor house.

It might have been the home of any rich noble, these days, though for the era in which it was built the lack of any fortifications was unusual. With the pines blanketing its grounds the full spread of the manor itself was hard to discern from this angle, though it was clearly huge. Gabled roofs poked up here and there between the trees, spreading in both directions from the high peak of the central hall, with turrets and towers rising even higher in places. The tallest had a sizable telescope protruding from its domed roof, which would be a rare feature now and had surely been an amazing extravagance when it was installed. The manor itself was perfectly preserved, of course; to look at, it might have been built this year. Only the military presence suggested at a glance that it was more than some aristocrat’s country house.

In addition to the roadblock before the gates, the Army had improvised a barracks in the manor’s old stables, from which the Imperial banner now flew. The road ascended the hill to the house proper, so that even from beyond the gates, most of the manor’s shape was visible above the outer walls and the staff-wielding Imperial soldiers holding the open gateway.

Admestus snuck a sidelong glance down at Eric. The dwarf was so caught up staring at Manor Dire that he had actually dropped his precious satchel.

“Hey,” the half-elf said, nudging Eric’s shoulder with his elbow. “Are we there yet?”

The dwarf turned slowly, blinking in befuddlement, to stare up at Admestus with an expression of disbelief.

“Just ignore him,” Owl advised without shifting his attention from the conversation taking place at the gates. The officer apparently in charge was talking with Lord Rhadid, while the rest watched their group with weapons at the ready. “If you give him attention once he’ll just keep hounding you for it.”

“Hey, hey, hey,” Admestus protested, wagging a chiding finger at Owl. “You can’t go giving away my professional secrets, old man! It’s simply not done. There are codes to be observed, don’t you know?”

Taking his own advice, the thief ignored him, keeping his eyes on their patron.

At that moment, Lord Rhadid shook the officer’s hand, looked back down the road at them, and jerked his head once in the direction of the manor. Then he turned his back and strode through the gates toward the house without waiting for them.

“We’re up, Tam,” said Owl, setting off.

“Don’t call me that,” she snapped automatically, ceasing her pacing and coming after them. Eric and Admestus were already on the way, leaving the mercenary to bring up the rear.

The soldiers gave them no problems; the officer was lounging against the gates with his arms folded, while his troops watched the adventurers pass but said nothing. They kept their weapons in hand and most of them stared particularly at Tamara, who was clad in leather armor and carrying enough obvious weapons to strongly suggest some of her bulging belt pouches contained less obvious ones. With a fully laden wandbelt holding two holstered sidearms at her hips and a heavier-duty shieldbreaker wand at the small of her back, plus a battlestaff and greatsword slung across her back from a bandolier filled with extra power crystals and no less than six visible defensive charms pinned to her hardened leather vest, she looked like she might have been able to break their four-person blockade of the gate by sheer force.

“Best of luck in there, kids,” the officer said sardonically.

Admestus halted, turning to the man and waggling his eyebrows. “Give us a kiss for luck?”

The man’s expression didn’t alter until he actually pursed his lips and started making smooching noises. Before anything could ensue from that, Tamara grabbed him by the collar and hauled him bodily up the path.

Lord Rhadid had at least stopped short of entering the Manor without them, and stood before the doors, atop the short flight of steps leading there. As they drew up to the base of the stairs, he turned from inspecting the great double doors to face them, prompting the group to stop. With the exception of Admestus, who added an extra swagger as he placed his foot on the bottom step, prompting Tamara to grab his collar again. For the moment, then, they paused there, giving the nobleman his impromptu dais from which to look down on them. Noblemen, as they all knew, lived for stuff like that.

Rhadid Daraspian was a tall man with the athletic build and sun-darkened complexion of one who liked outdoor sports; though short of middle age, he was already balding, but in a way which gave him a sharp widow’s peak that, if anything, augmented his aquiline features to their advantage.

“Now that we are here,” he stated, “you will all listen once again to a lecture you have already heard. You will do so patiently and attentively. This will be our last chance to review these facts, and they are of paramount importance; if any one of you fails to respect the realities of our situation, it is entirely possible that we will all die—and worse, the years of effort I have devoted toward the arranging of this expedition will have been squandered. Professor Ahlstrom, if you would, please repeat to our fellows the base instructions you have given us for survival and success in Manor Dire.”

Eric cleared his throat and shuffled his feet uncertainly. When Lord Rhadid made no move to yield the position atop the steps, the dwarf contented himself with climbing up onto the first stair and turning to face the rest of them.

“Well, then! As, ah, I’m sure you recall, Manor Dire is the youngest of the great dungeons, having existed for scarcely five hundred years. Many of them date from the time of the Elder Gods at least, but this… Well, it was the home and seat of power of Archmage Direstaan, who is thought to have been the ancestor of House Daraspian.” He turned toward Lord Rhadid and sketched an awkward little bow before continuing. “Basically, it should be treated as the home and demesne of an exceptionally powerful wizard, even in his absence. The house itself has a clear intelligence and a certain…distinctive approach to its treatment of guests. As we explore the Manor, we will be repeatedly tested as it figures out our intentions and capacities. It is of paramount importance that we remain guests of Manor Dire.” Eric paused to clear his throat. “If it begins to view us as invaders, things will go very badly for us, very quickly. So, conduct yourself as you would in the home of any powerful person who you must assume will be aware of anything you do. Don’t damage anything. Don’t steal anything. Even picking up a loose penny could land us in seriously hot water.”

The entire group turned to look at Owl. He didn’t even acknowledge them, the thief simply regarding Eric with a patient expression as he waited for the lecture to continue.

“What we’re looking for is…well, somewhere deep in the house,” Eric continued. “Like all dungeons, Manor Dire contains considerable wealth as well as great danger, but this one is not so easily looted. As I was just saying, anyone who begins picking up treasure in here will be quickly brought to grief. The physical layout of the Manor is malleable as water; we’ll go where it wants us to go. Our goal must be to gain its respect and regard so that it allows us into the innermost regions where the important artifacts are held, and deems us worthy to…” He trailed off, glancing up at Lord Rhadid, who continued to watch them impassively. “To make use of them. Any questions?”

“Yeah.” Tamara made a languid gesture that was only vaguely reminiscent of a student raising her hand in class. “What’s the point of going for the treasure in the deep rooms if we can’t bring it back out with us?”

“The real treasure of Manor Dire is in the use of its facilities, not their extraction,” Eric replied, his voice growing more animated as he warmed to his favorite subject. “Remember, this was the personal citadel of one of the greatest archmages who ever lived. The library in this house is one of the finest in the world. Magnan himself studied here, in Direstaan’s enchanting lab. Likewise the alchemy lab is—” He broke off, glancing once more up at their patron, then changed tracks. “And there’s the observatory! You can see the telescope from the main room, but so far no one who has ventured into the Manor has been granted access to it. That’s arguably the most precious resource within! Direstaan was a pioneer of astroscrying; they say that with the equipment in there, one can count the rings of Drusera and view the moons of Bastila as clearly as modern telescopes can see our own!”

“If nobody’s ever gotten that far,” Admestus asked innocently, “who is this they who says that, and how do you know they aren’t full of it?”

“The observatory is not the goal of this expedition,” Lord Rhadid interjected before Eric had to find an answer. “Are there any other questions? If any of you has a pressing concern you felt uncomfortable raising previously, I encourage you to get it out of your system now, before we are within and subject to the temptation to poke at anything.”

“I’m curious about the composition of this team, m’Lord,” Owl said. “I’m a specialist in traps and locks, Ms. Farahd here is a fighter—those are obvious. I even get the librarian, since he’s such an expert on the house.”

“Archaeologist,” Eric corrected stiffly. “And it is not arrogance to state that I am the foremost expert on Manor Dire among modern academia. I have made it the focus of my entire career!”

“Bet that makes you a blast at parties,” Owl remarked, still deadpan. “Point is, I get why he’s along. But what the hell is with this guy?” He pointed at Admestus without bothering to look in his direction.

“No one is with Rafe,” the half-elf intoned solemnly, spreading his hands in a gesture of benediction. “Rafe…is with you all.”

Tamara drew in a deep breath and let it out very slowly through her teeth.

“Thanks to the Professor’s little lapse, there,” Owl continued, “it’s clear enough our goal is the alchemy lab. But seriously. With all due respect, m’Lord, this group is about two-fifths having any business in a dungeon. We’ve got one fussy academic who doesn’t look like he’s ever been outside before, and the kind of clown who’s likely to get killed in a moderately rough bar, let alone one of the great dungeons. And again, m’Lord, I mean no insult, and I’m sure you’ve been taught to use those weapons, but…well, you know.”

Rhadid indeed had both a golden-hilted rapier and a wand hanging from his belt, and the sword at least he carried with the effortless balance of someone for whom the weapon was an extension of himself. The belt, though, encircled a Punaji-style greatcoat that was perfectly tailored to him, its velvet obviously brushed just that morning, and had thread-of-gold embroidery climbing its lapels and halfway up the sleeves. He did not look like someone who belonged on a dungeon dive.

“I take no insult,” Lord Rhadid said mildly. “Would it assuage your concerns, Owl, to know that I am a veteran of expeditions into Venomfont, the Tomb of Sypraxis, and the Screaming Gardens?”

Owl actually blinked three times in rapid succession, the first sign of surprise or discomfiture he had betrayed since joining the group. “Actually, my lord, it does.”

Rhadid nodded curtly. “I understand your concern. With no insult meant to you, let me be clear: Professor Ahlstrom, Admestus, and myself are essential for this expedition. You two are along as insurance, and for the sake of thoroughness. You will be well-paid when our mission is completed—but you will be paid by me, when we return to Tehvaad. There are no looting rights associated with this excursion, and as you have repeatedly been told, succumbing to the temptation will likely doom us all. Is that understood?”

He arched one eyebrow, staring superciliously down at them until everyone verbally acknowledged the instruction.

“Actually, my lord, I have a question,” Eric said meekly. “That bit with the soldiers… Are you sure our presence here is perfectly legal? I realize that Manor Dire is within your House’s traditional holdings, but it’s also within the Tiraan Empire, of course, and…”

“You should be more aware of the legal gray areas surrounding the great dungeons than most, Professor,” Rhadid answered. “The Imperial Army does not want people entering Manor Dire, but it is not illegal for civilians to do so. Between those two facts is a narrow space of leeway which most people wisely hesitate to navigate, but I assure you that the privilege of rank applies so long as you are with me. Possession is, as they say, nine-tenths of the law.”

“Anyway,” Owl added unexpectedly, “the Empire treats the great dungeons more like frontiers than real estate. Theasia’s too clever to claim sovereignty over a piece of territory troops can’t actually hold. They’ll try to stop you going in, but once you’re in, on your head be it.”

“Ah, very good,” Eric said, smiling. “That’s reassuring.”

“Are you entirely sure that word means what you think it means?” Admestus asked.

“Any other questions?” Rhadid inquired pointedly. “This will be your last chance to ask them in safety.”

They glanced at each other in silence. Admestus picked his nose.

“Then we begin,” Lord Rhadid declared. He turned, grasped the door handles with both hands, and pulled the great double doors wide in a grandiose gesture, then immediately strode into Manor Dire without waiting for them.

Inside, the great entry hall continued to be downright humble as dungeons went. Again, it would have served well to show off the wealth of such a home’s owner, though the interior betrayed its age more than the facade. The great hall was very much a relic of the tastes of five centuries prior, all spare stonework and great exposed beams, with only banners, weapons, and hunting trophies as decorations. The light came from torches rather than modern fairy lamps, or even older oil lamps, creating a flickering dimness that cast deep shadows. In fact, it rather resembled a Shaathist lodge.

It was also not unoccupied.

Directly opposite the entry, the hall ended in an enormous hearth, with seats drawn up to it and a plush bearskin rug draped on the floor in front—white, a rare example of the the now-extinct Kharsa bear, which itself would be worth more than a satchel of jewelry. Stairs rose from either side of the broad fireplace to a landing which was hidden behind the wide stone chimney, but there was a comfortable space in front of the roaring blaze. Sitting there, upon the bear rug, were four gnomes.

As one, they rose to their feet, staring down the length of the great hall at the new arrivals.

Rhadid stopped just inside the doors, allowing his eyes to adjust to the dimmer light, while the rest of his group trickled in behind him and fanned out to either side, peering around at the sparse furnishings and the unexpected fellow adventurers ahead.

Admestus edged to the side of the group, turning his head back and forth to peer up and down the hall while the two groups stared at each other. After the awkwardness began to stretch out, he cleared his throat and flung out one arm to gesture broadly at everything in the most dramatic fashion possible.

“BEHOLD!”

Everyone turned to stare at him.

“Well, right back atcha,” said one of the gnomes, swaggering forward. “You duckies don’t look Imperial, if y’don’t mind me sayin’.”

“Were you expecting an Imperial presence?” Lord Rhadid asked blandly.

“Oh, there’s already an Imperial presence,” she replied, winking. “Least one team workin’ through the Manor as we speak. It’s more we weren’t expectin’ anybody else to make it in here. They’ve mostly given up tryin’ ta stop us from comin’ in, but y’don’t often see the common run of adventurers in a dungeon where they’ve set up shop ’round the entrance.”

“I beg your pardon,” Admestus gasped. “Common run? How very dare—”

“Rafe,” Rhadid interrupted, “shut up.”

“Yes, sir, m’lord, sir. Shutting up, sir, by your will.”

“For my part,” Lord Rhadid continued, inclining his head slightly toward the gnomes, “I’ve no intention of interfering in whatever business you have. Is there going to be a problem here?”

“Oh, now, y’don’t need to worry about us,” she said, grinning amiably and continuing to approach; being in no hurry, it took a while on her short legs. “No honest gnome ever begrudged a fellow adventurer the chance for fun an’ profit! As to whether this is gonna be a problem, that’s rather up to you, innit? Cos the Manor’s fairly discriminatin’ in terms o’ how it handles interlopers, but not too excessively. Could end up bein’ a right nuisance for us if you rile up the house.”

“We fully intend to avoid such an outcome with the greatest care,” Rhadid replied. “I confess I am somewhat more concerned with the presence of Imperial troops, now that I know there is a team within.”

“Aye,” she agreed. Having come within conversational distance of them, the gnome stopped, craning her head back to meet his eyes. Behind, the rest of her group watched in silence from the fireside. “Not the most cautious o’ wanderers, are they? Troopers always wanna poke somethin’ with a battlestaff, an’ then when the inevitable happens, shoot it. I will say, in fairness, this crew’s less slaphappy than most. The Empire’s had their thumb on Manor Dire for a while now; by this point the lackeys they send in have at least some vague idea what the hell they’re doin’. Billie Fallowstone, glad t’know ye!”

She held out her hand, and Rhadid bent forward to shake it firmly.

“Lord Rhadid Daraspian. Charmed, I’m sure.”

“Your Lordship,” she said, raising her eyebrows. “An’ a Daraspian, no less. Here to try an’ assert the ol’ hereditary claim t’the place, if y’don’t mind me askin’?”

He straightened back up, still wearing a thin smile. “I am not inclined to discuss my personal business, though no, I do not mind being asked. I gather the house is fairly quiet at present?”

“Ehh…” She grimaced, and made a wavering gesture with one hand. “Dunno if I’d go that far. She ain’t too stirred up, I’ll say that much. The house’s always a wee bit on edge with this many people stompin’ about. I’d say mind how hard y’put down yer feet an’ odds are you’ll met no trouble, ‘less ye blunder into somebody else’s mess.”

“I thank you for the warning,” he said courteously, inclining his head again. “By your leave, then, I shall wish you good fortune. I am eager to make a start on my own expedition.”

“Aye, no time like the present!” Billie said with irrepressible good cheer, falling into step beside him as Rhadid set off down the center of the great hall. “I wish you the best o’ luck with your quest, then. Winding trails an’ full chests to you all.”

Tamara came to a stop, frowning down at her. “What did you say?”

“It’s an old gnomish benediction, Tam,” Owl explained. “She’s not talking about your chest.”

“But I could, if y’want,” Billie added, waggling her eyebrows.

“Oy, Fallowstone,” one of the other gnomes said with open exasperation. “For once in yer life could ya not agitate the tall folk?”

Rhadid had already turned aside in the wide space around the fireplace, where in addition to the ascending stairs several corridors branched out at ground level. Owl and Eric were already following him, Tamara with a lingering suspicious look at Billie.

Admestus fell to one knee, holding out a hand to the gnome, and was somewhat surprised when she took it; rarely did people obligingly play along.

“Alas,” he declaimed, “that our acquaintance must be so brief, and our parting so swift! Know, fairest maiden, that I shall count the very heartbeats that mark our cruel separation.”

“Oh, baby,” she cooed, hopping nimbly up to straddle his outstretched knee. Billie grabbed him by the cheeks and planted an exuberant smooch right on his lips.

A moment later she was sent tumbling to the floor with a playful squeak when Tamara grabbed Admestus’s collar yet again and hauled him physically away down the hall, not pausing to let him get his feet under himself.

“Wait for me, my darling!” he cried despairingly, extending a longing hand as he was dragged away.

“Till the very stars fall, ‘andsome!” she replied playfully.

“Honestly,” one of Billie’s friends said as he was pulled around the corner, “are you gonna let the poor sod go off thinkin’ you’re a maiden?”

“I guarantee ‘e doesn’t think that,” another replied.

“Listen, dumbshit,” Tamara growled, hiking Admestus upright and setting him roughly on his feet. “I don’t care what the tavern wenches think is cute back in whatever university town it is you come from. You act the cut-up in here, and we all die. So you cut it the fuck out, is that understood?”

“Scuze me, missy, but you’re not the boss of me,” he said imperiously, then leaned around her to stare at the rest of the group, who had finally paused for them. “What about it, boss of me? Shall I cut it the fuck out?”

“Do exercise a modicum of restraint, Admestus,” said Rhadid. “But that was well handled. Now come along, all, time is precious.”

“Well-handled?” Tamara muttered while Admestus skipped past her to join Eric just behind Rhadid. “What the hell?”

“Situation’s a bit different than we expected,” Owl said laconically. “It’s not just a dungeon crawl anymore; now it turns out the gnomes and the Empire are vying for control of the Manor. And we just walked right into the middle of it. I’m not gonna give Asshat the Alchemist credit for doing that on purpose, but it’s prob’ly best if they both think we’re not to be taken seriously, and stick to worrying about each other.”

“Control?” Tamara asked. “Gnomes? What?”

“One of the major factors which characterizes the great dungeons,” Eric explained as they walked, “as opposed to other dangerous ruins that might or might not contain treasure, is their self-regenerating properties. No matter how carefully cleared out, a dungeon always has more hazards—and usually, more rewards for those willing to risk it and strong enough to succeed. This also makes them a consistent source of profit, which is why adventurers keep going into them. Ever since the Enchanter Wars, gnomes have been setting up colonies in great dungeons to continuously delve them for resources. Since Empress Theasia was crowned, the Empire has followed suit, and now there is something of a race on between the two parties to seize control of the various dungeons.” He sighed. “This…may well be the last opportunity for any un-aligned party to explore this one. Manor Dire has a mind of its own and won’t be as easy to suborn, but I fear one or the other group will find a way.”

“All the more reason to finish our business and get out,” said Rhadid, “before either plants a flag, so to speak. Or worse, engages in an outright battle for control with us in the crossfire. Join me, Professor; I believe you are most qualified to determine our course from here on.”

“Uh, yeah,” Admestus added. “We’re walking past an awful lot of doors, here. Shouldn’t we, y’know…look around?”

“That’s one approach,” Eric agreed, looking diffidently up at Lord Rhadid as he trundled along beside their benefactor. “Our objective is to penetrate deeper into the Manor and ultimately reach its laboratories—which will happen when the Manor decides to permit it. We achieve that end by impressing it as worthy guests, which is done by surmounting its challenges and behaving respectfully. We could proceed directly through the halls and wait for challenges to present themselves, or take our time and explore each room we pass. Practically speaking, the end result will be the same, so, really, it’s up to you, m’lord.”

Rhadid came to a stop, forcing the rest to do likewise, and looked around thoughtfully. They were in a wood-paneled corridor with heavy oaken doors along it at intervals; a few yards ahead it ended in a T-intersection. There were no visible windows, but the torches were spaced closely enough to provide adequate light.

“What do you anticipate in the way of challenges, Professor?” he asked.

“Well,” said Eric, “some monsters to fight, eventually, but Manor Dire tends more to favor traps and puzzles. We should be on the alert for surprises, of course. As a general rule, little of danger or consequence will appear this close to the entrance—or rather, this soon after our entry. Distance and location mean little in here; our progress is better judged by the impression we have made upon the Manor. Oh! You should know that bedrooms are generally safe. If the Manor offers us a place to sleep, we can be relatively sure there will be no attacks or shenanigans while we avail ourselves. Food and drink likewise; I know we brought provisions, but the Manor does not drug people except when the potables in question are obviously a component of a puzzle.”

“Puzzles,” Tamara muttered, peering around. “Fucking ridiculous…”

“Let us proceed,” Lord Rhadid decided. “The Manor may test us in whatever way it deems proper. All of you, remember to behave with the appropriate respect.”

He continued on, then turned left at the fork. They followed the corridor in silence for a time, then listening to Admestus’s off-key whistling until Tamara punched him in the ear. Then more silence.

Once it became clear that Rhadid had no intention of exploring any of the doors they passed, the Manor evidently tired of waiting on him to show initiative. The corridor abruptly turned to the right, and a few yards farther on, opened out into a sizable room.

Rounding the corner, the whole group slowed. Up ahead there was brighter, steadier light than the torches provided, along with a rhythmic hissing noise and the incongruous sound of a woman humming. Lord Rhadid gave them a firm look, then resumed course. In moments they had emerged from the hallway into a comfortable sitting room.

It was not luxurious by modern standards, reflecting the same rough sensibilities as the great hall. There was another fireplace, and large stuffed armchairs draped with shaggy bison furs. Along one entire wall ran a glass-topped display case containing skeletons of strange creatures no bigger than a cat; in one corner stood a taxidermied cat bigger than a wolf with enormous fangs the length of a human forearm, while another held a wired skeleton of a creature about the size of a dog which looked like a cross between a bird and a lizard. The fire was not lit, but the row of candles atop the mantle were, as well as two oil lamps set upon end tables next to the armchairs.

A slim woman stood with her back to them, sweeping the floor. The sound of her broom upon the floorboards caused the hiss they had heard. At their entry, she stopped humming, turning to study them critically. The apparent housemaid was, incongruously, a wood elf. For the most part she was attired as such, in a blousy green shirt with a brown vest and trousers above beaded moccasins. Her golden hair was covered by a kerchief such as any human housewife might wear, and she wore a pair of gold-rimmed spectacles.

She didn’t talk like a servant, either.

“Admestus Rafe,” the woman said stridently in Tanglish, flinging her broom to the floor and planting her hands on her hips. “Just what in blazes do you think you are doing?”

He straightened up in surprise, blinking, while the others all turned to stare at him again. “Ah… Would I be correct in guessing this is one of those situations where the correct answer isn’t going to cut it? Because the correct answer is ‘doing an honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay,’ but I get the feeling you’re fishing for something a bit more—”

“You couldn’t find anywhere else to do an honest day’s work than Manor bloody Dire?” the elf spat. “Do your parents know you’re in here?”

“Admestus,” Rhadid said calmly, “why don’t you introduce us to your…acquaintance?”

“Oh, of course, terribly sorry, m’lord,” he babbled. “You know me, so absent-minded, leave my head behind one of these days. Well! This, of course, is Lord Rhadid Daraspian, my esteemed employer and wearer of the coolest coat I have ever seen in my life. Seriously, look at him! Did you ever see such dapperness? To his left, Professor Eric Ahlstrom, who teaches something or other in some school or other up in Isilond. Or was it Stavulheim? Ah, well, doesn’t matter. These two are just muscle, you can forget about them.”

“I’m gonna strangle him,” Tamara said aloud to no one in particular. “I can see it coming. This whole shitshow ends with my hands around his skinny neck.”

“And everyone,” Admestus continued, gesturing grandly to the elf, “this, of course, is my very good… That is, the most honorable…” Slowly he turned to her, frowning. “Oh, yes, that reminds me. Just who the bloody hell are you?”

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Bonus #47: The Light of Dawn, part 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Young lady,” he growled, “go home.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Ampophrenon gave her something to observe, all right.

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

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

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

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

Still they waited.

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

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

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

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

Because front and center, she was there.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Mother, please,” Invazradi squalled.

“You shut up!” Azradeh snapped at her.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then, incongruously, Elilial smiled.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Bonus #46: The Light of Dawn, part 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not enough, though. Not yet.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then they faltered.

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

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

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

At least, until he revealed his other form.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Bonus #40: Curse the Darkness, part 3

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“Pl-please initiate bodily contact wi-with the conduit.”

Macraigh shifted, glancing around the circular chamber. “Which is—ah.”

Behind him, the black obelisk had come to life. The pyramid shape which formed its peak, previously of pure transparent glass, had turned an opaque white and begun to glow gently. Though the sides of the obelisk themselves still appeared to be the same matte metal, vertical lines of glowing text had appeared on its faces, and their position made it seem for all the world as if they were set an inch or so within the structure and viewed through a transparent surface—which did not, otherwise, appear to be transparent. Ah, well, this was far from the first disorienting thing to which his exploration into the deeper secrets of magic had exposed him.

Slowly, Macraigh lifted a single hand and placed it against one side of the obelisk, where it did not obscure the writing. He could not discern what language the luminous violet characters were, if indeed they were language as he knew it. Under the circumstances, they were just as likely to be symbols of power.

“In-initiating biometric syn-syn-ssssnnnnnnNNNN— Initiating biometric synchronization,” the spirit informed him. “The acclimation procedure can begin momentarily, user Laran Macraigh. You will be physically incapacitated for the duration, and may not remain conscious; if consciousness persists, you will likely find the process disorienting. Individual experiences vary. Be aware that there is a risk of injury due to falling, as the fac-facility’s physical safeguards are offline due to po-po-power const-constraints.”

“I understand,” he said solemnly, and drew in a deep breath to still his nerves. “I…am sorry to ask this of you, Sub Ohess. I swear that I will honor this sacrifice.”

She chimed noncommittally. “Biometric synchronization is complete. The acclimation process can begin when you are ready.”

This moment was the culmination of everything he had been working for his entire adult life. It deserved reverence, ceremony even. She deserved more than a few hollow words; though the spirit seemed unbothered by what he asked of her and this was probably no more than her sworn duty as guardian of the shrine, he could not view the snuffing out of a thinking being as a small thing. But he had no time. And besides, given the not-insignificant possibility that he was about to be driven irrevocably insane, his unease could keep him dithering here basically forever. Sometimes, the scab simply had to be ripped off.

“Do it,” he ordered, “please.”

Macraigh was watching the obelisk he had been directed to touch for some further alteration, but it turned out that not all the magic of the Elder Gods was visibly flashy. While he was still waiting for the lights to change, an entire suite of new senses exploded into his consciousness and, luckily for him, he blacked out.


The shouting wasn’t really a surprise. If anyone alive were to walk up to a notorious sorceress and an actual dragon and begin shouting demands at them, it would be the Inquisitor. It was actually sort of impressive that they were letting her shout. And perhaps a little unfortunate. She so rarely encountered people who had no need to tolerate her antics; experiencing some repercussions for once would’ve done her a world of good, in Macraigh’s opinion.

He felt a strange detachment as he ascended the stairs out of the now-dark ancient shrine. Behind him he left only silence and dust; even the lights had vanished as the guardian spirit’s last act had, as she warned, consumed every remaining spark of magic in the place. Macraigh had awakened on the floor with a peculiar lack of worry, or emotional reaction of any kind. It felt, somehow, as if his head were floating a few feet above his body. The sensation was eerily aloof, yet serene.

“The will of the gods will not be thwarted by arrogant monsters!” the Inquisitor’s familiar voice was shrilling as he slowly ascended the stairs toward the sunlight above. “I have pursued this warlock from Calderaas to Varandia to Athan’Khar and now here, and you will not be the thing that—”

“You can’t actually believe that guy’s a warlock,” Arachne’s voice interrupted. “I could see that misunderstanding if you’d bumped into him once in a dungeon, but if you’ve chased him all around the continent, you have to know he’s a wizard. Or do you understand the difference? Have you seriously never met a warlock?”

“Maybe she hasn’t,” Zanzayed added, and his voice was different, lighter. Macraigh stopped on the stairs, his head just below the level of the top step, and shifted his gaze in the direction of the dragon. “Inquisitor, what even is that? How do you get that title? I’ve never heard of an Inquisition. Are you sure this is authorized by the Pantheon?”

Macraigh was staring up at him. He could not see through the intervening layers of metal and earth, but he perceived that the dragon had reduced himself to his humanoid form—a half-elven one, in his case. In fact, he lacked the vocabulary to describe the way he was receiving this information, but it was as clear as anything his eyes or ears told him. More so, given that he was standing in a metal-lined stairwell at the moment.

“My mandate comes from Avei,” the Inquisitor snapped. “Move aside, or be moved.”

“I like her,” Zanzayed stated, turning to Arachne. Macraigh was still standing out of sight below them, taking in the experience of being able to tell such little details of positioning without having eyes on them. “I really like her! This is the most entertaining mortal I’ve met since…well, you.”

“Yes, she’s your type, all right,” the sorceress sneered. “Stupid, and breathing.”

Divine magic ignited in a corona around the Inquisitor, seizing Macraigh’s attention. He could physically see the glow from the doorway at the top of the stairs, but sensed it more directly in a way to which he was not accustomed.

Something about it was…wrong. If only he had more basis for comparison. He had never before observed a divine aura in this fashion, and could not yet tell exactly what was off, but there was a peculiarity in the way she projected the magic.

“You doubt me now?” the Inquisitor demanded. “The Convocation at Tira endorsed my mission in the sight of every god of the Pantheon. I am empowered by Avei to seek justice against— You!”

Macraigh had resumed climbing and emerged from the stairwell while she blustered. Now he studied her quizzically while she pointed an accusing finger at him. Though he had avoided close contact with the Inquisitor as much as possible, he of course knew her well by sight. Her pale skin and coppery hair weren’t common even among the Stallmen of the eastern mountains, and less common still among the Tira people from which he and she both came. Macraigh had always suspected, rather uncharitably, that she abused her divine magic to heal the sunburns to which redheads were unfortunately prone, and took some satisfaction in seeing now that he had been right. Well, not seeing, but he could discern the residue…

Now that he peered closer, he found the cause of that odd discrepancy. There was something between her and the divine, a peculiar dark membrane which allowed the power of the gods to flow through her as normal, but kept her insulated from it in a way. In fact, that thin web of shivering shadows resonated so specifically with the new powers of which he had just become conscious that Macraigh suddenly understood exactly why her access to the divine was so different.

Well, that explained a lot.

“I guess we can begin the chorus of ‘I told you so’ now,” Arachne said with an exasperated sigh. “Who would like to go first? Inquisitor, I think you have seniority.”

“Pardon?” Macraigh asked, then stopped, blinking his eyes in surprise. His voice, for some reason, sounded a lot like the shrine spirit’s; resonant, hollow, as though he were speaking from the other end of a very long tunnel.

“Look at yourself, man,” Zanzayed ordered.

“At myself? What’s…oh.” Macraigh, as instructed, looked down at his body, and then at both of his arms. Once he focused upon it directly, everything made sense in accordance with the new awareness he’d gained, but as a consequence of that awareness none of this had seemed out of order until he beheld it with his more mundane senses. Now, he found himself limned by an oscillating web of purple, a peculiar visual effect which could have been called a glow, if shadows glowed. In fact, it looked to the eye very much like the energy between the Inquisitor and her divine power did to his augmented senses.

Not a coincidence, that.

“What have you done to yourself, Laran?” she demanded, staring at him with a very convincing expression of horror. For just a moment, looking back at her, Macraigh experienced a further expansion of his awareness, becoming conscious of the emotions of those around him, betraying her tight self-control and the surprising depth of layers to the facade she was projecting.

That also called his attention to those behind the Inquisitor, a squad of troops from the League of Avei and two Silver Huntresses, including the one he had encountered earlier.

More than that, the extended awareness was accompanied by a visible fading of his own body, as he became slightly transparent behind his new corona of shadows. Macraigh concentrated—on what, he could not have articulated exactly, but he concentrated on it—and the sudden emotional senses vanished as his body snapped back into opaque focus.

“All right,” he acknowledged, “this wasn’t exactly what I had in mind.”

“I’ll bet,” Zanzayed stated.

“And this is why I tell people not to mess around with Elder God rubbish,” Arachne added with a sigh. “Exactly how much of a mess did you leave down there, boy?”

“Oh. I’m afraid the shrine is completely inert, now,” he mused, still gazing around abstractly and absorbing data in intriguing new ways. “The acclimation process used up the last of its power. The shrine guardian warned me there might not be enough energy left to do it properly, but she made it sound like it would drive me insane, at worst. This is a surprise.”

“Oh, just insane?” Zanzayed said, rolling his eyes. It was the most fascinating thing; the dragon’s eyes were smoothly featureless, luminous spheres of cobalt, and the gesture did not alter his expression, but Macraigh could tell he had rolled them. “No wonder you sprung for it, then. Who wouldn’t?”

Macraigh turned his attention fully on Zanzayed, and as if the act of focusing had slipped a lens over his eyes he could suddenly see more. The dragon, even in this body, was a vast being of pure magic, a titanic vortex of arcane power shot through with veins of gold, green, and even trace amounts of orange—all the forces on the known Circle of Interaction. Even, he saw with great interest, the tiniest darker currents of shadow magic. Nothing the dragon was using deliberately, he decided upon peering closer. But it accrued in interesting ways when the four main schools were used in conjunction…

He shifted his attention to Arachne and was almost knocked over. She was something else entirely. Macraigh felt his awareness expanding against his own will, as if it desperately needed to re-position itself in order to make sense of what he now saw. She was a wound in the world, or more accurately, a patch over it—a piece of a quilt which did not match the rest of the stitching. He saw spider webs straining to hold together a bleeding rent in reality. He saw an hourglass stretching away into infinity, its uncountable chambers whirling with a blaze of magic whose nature defied even his new senses to define.

And for an instant, Macraigh understood, consciously and in complete detail, what every one of those things meant. What she was, exactly. He also felt his own identity becoming so frayed at the edges that he seemed on the very cusp of dissolving entirely into the fabric of the universe itself, and through a sheer effort of will closed down his own consciousness. The broadened awareness and understanding retreated as his mind limited itself back to a form which didn’t have the necessary capacity, and he was left with only the awareness that Arachne was one of the more interesting beings in the cosmos, even if he no longer knew exactly why.

He also felt that he had been stretched by that momentary glimpse. Seized from all directions and pulled so hard that part of him was still…thin. Thin, and fading.

Macraigh glanced down at his own hands again. Yes, fading.

“Look at yourself,” the Inquisitor breathed. “Did you crave power so much you were willing to endure this?”

He looked up at her again, and smiled. “One of my teachers liked to say that it was better to light a candle than to curse the darkness, Inquisitor.”

She shook her head, and drew her sword. “In the name of Avei—”

Macraigh reached out with his will. It didn’t feel like using arcane magic; it was pure instinct. The shadows wreathing him shimmered, touched the darkness lurking inside her own aura, and her divine light winked out. Her expression was very satisfying.

“Nnnnope,” Zanzayed said flatly. “That does it, I’m out.”

“Coward,” Arachne said without rancor.

“You do what you like,” he retorted. “In my opinion, this has officially crossed the line into ‘just as hazardous as messing around with Elder God shrines’ territory. I came here to deal with this guy for his temerity in daring to manipulate us, and now that’s done. He won’t last an hour. In the meantime, he is using unknown magics to prod at the Pantheon’s power directly, and I’m not interested in being within a mile of that. Goodbye.”

The Inquisitor’s divine aura flared alight again; Macraigh had disrupted it, not blocked it. Her expression at finding it still viable was almost comically relieved, though she immediately turned to Zanzayed even as the dragon strode away through the tallgrass. “Wait! What do you mean, he won’t last an hour?”

“What’s the first rule of magic?” Zanzayed replied, pausing and looking over his shoulder at her. “The most basic principle, even more fundamental than the four schools of the Circle?”

“Subjective physics,” Arachne said softly, studying Macraigh. “Magic is taking a piece of reality and making the rules answerable to a singular consciousness, not the hard constants of the universe. Zanza’s right, I’ve seen the likes of this before. A being that absorbs too much magic stops being…a being.”

“Anything too subjective may as well not exist,” Zanzayed agreed, turning again and continuing on. “At some point, there have to be rules. The alternative is pure chaos.”

“What, he’s turning into some kind of…ascended entity?” the Inquisitor exclaimed, pointing her sword at Macraigh in alarm. Both the Silver Huntresses flanking her nocked arrows and did likewise.

“No.” Zanzayed had gained enough distance to emerge into his larger form without crushing any of them, and did so. His angular head swiveled around on his long neck to stare down at the Inquisitor. “He is dissipating. Something which ascends is moving purposefully in a single direction; this is more like dropping ink into a pond. Congratulations, Inquisitor, your work here is done. Coming, Arachne?”

“Wait,” Macraigh said, turning to the elf and holding up one hand. “Please, just a moment.”

Zanzayed snorted and hurled himself aloft with a pump of his wings that nearly knocked them all down. All of them except Macraigh; the mighty gust of air the dragon kicked up swirled right through him without making contact.

“This is just intriguing enough I’m willing to hear you out, briefly,” Arachne said skeptically, smoothing her hair back into place.

They were right, Macraigh realized. It was growing harder and harder to keep his consciousness constrained to a single point, and with the constant expansion of his senses came the awareness that he wasn’t going to endure much longer. Highly magical beings like fairies, dragons, and elves were made that way; the accidental process he’d undergone in the shrine had not adjusted his consciousness enough to encompass the magic coursing through it.

Macraigh himself didn’t feel any particular way about this; that disembodied serenity still lifted him above these concerns. Already, he was too far beyond a singular perspective to feel any emotional upset at facing the end of his own discrete existence.

Thinking faster and more deeply than he’d been able to before, he had already found a way to hold on, but it wouldn’t be as a conscious entity, and wouldn’t last forever. But it would, if the sorceress was willing to cooperate, at least accomplish his mission. Seeking a way to secure her aid, he found that in studying her closely, he could peer through space, through time, across the faint shadows of connections, to see what divine entities she had touched, and would, and in what order. The present moment was one spot on a wheel that constantly turned.

“You haven’t obtained an interview with Salyrene yet,” he said.

Her eyes narrowed to green slits. “There’s not much point in asking how you know that, is there?”

“Don’t speak to him,” the Inquisitor instructed tersely. “All of you, fall back. Sisters, remain close enough to see him, but whatever is about to happen—”

“Would you hush for once?” Macraigh snapped in the first open irritation he’d shown her in their entire relationship. “I’ll deal with you in a moment.”

“How dare you—”

“I can offer you something to tempt her,” he said to Arachne. “It is not a guarantee, but it will be important enough to draw her favor. If it doesn’t prompt her to grant your request, it will at least be a large step in that direction.”

Her expression did not alter, but he was aware of millions of minute electrical signals in her brain that revealed her interest. He was also aware that this wasn’t going to get her what she wanted; Salyrene would be the last of the gods to whom she spoke, and that would not be for well over a thousand years yet. And even then, none of the Pantheon had the answer she sought. Obviously, he did not share these insights with her. It was for good reason that mortals could not perceive such things, he was beginning to realize.

“I’m still listening,” Arachne said in a neutral tone.

Macraigh held up his Bag of Holding—not with his hands, it floated outward on a tendril of his shadowy aura—and it opened.

“My books,” he said, and they began to rise from its mouth, beginning with the Wraith Codex.

“Where did you get that?!” the Inquisitor screeched. Macraigh and Arachne both ignored her.

“I have made you the bag’s new owner,” he said to the sorceress, having blithely re-worked this enchantment in a process that ought to have taken hours. Oblivion was tugging at the edges of his awareness, each use of magic drawing him closer to the inevitable. “Most of what’s in it is trash to someone like you, but you may find the books valuable. This one I already promised you. And these four are the most important.” The Codex returned to the bag, and out rose the four volumes printed by the shrine guardian. “These contain the secrets of the four schools of shadow magic that I was able to uncover. They contain everything known by the Elder Gods. Very little of it is still usable, as weak as those powers are now, but with this knowledge will come the ability to constrain the power of the infernal. If you bring this to the Collegium and convince them to study it, it will mean an end to the Black Wraiths and their demon allies. Or at least, force them deeper into hiding and prevent another event like the Hellwars. With time and study, the Collegium may even be able to safely wield infernal magic in the Pantheon’s service.”

“Blasphemy,” the Inquisitor spat, practically foaming. “Kill him!”

Both Huntresses frowned at her. “But…what if he’s right?” the one Macraigh had met earlier objected.

“I am called by Avei to end this heresy before it can spread,” she snapped, “and this must stop now. If you will not—”

“Shut up, you petulant child,” Arachne exclaimed, flicking a hand at her. A wall of blue light sprang up between the Inquisitor and the two of them, and she turned her attention back to Macraigh, ignoring the woman’s furious pounding on it with her sword. “I can see the academic value of this, but as I recall the entire reason for your predicament was the necessity of personal initiation into these schools of magic. How do you expect me to give them that?”

“You won’t,” he said. “I will. Just give them the books and I’ll do the rest.”

“Don’t do it!” the Inquisitor screamed.

“Hmm.” Arachne frowned at him. “I see. You can bind what’s left of yourself to the books?”

“If you’ll keep them in the Bag of Holding until it’s time to hand them over,” he agreed, nodding. “Its dimensional enchantments will help. I can confine myself to a state that will endure just long enough to grant the initiation—correctly, this time, so the recipient won’t end up like me. Do warn whoever agrees to take them, though. It’s not something that should be sprung on someone unawares.”

“Trust me,” she said dryly, “I know well the hazards of sneaking up on wizards. Very well, boy, you have a deal. I’m almost glad you decided to drag me into your insane quest. Though I wish you’d approached this with enough forethought to have avoided the way it will inevitably end for you. One hates to see the loss of a promising wizard.”

He shrugged, smiling ruefully. “Well, we can’t all be archmages. I did my best. Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to deal with her.”

“Hadn’t you better just leave her alone?” Arachne asked, turning a disdainful look on the furious Inquisitor. “I assure you, she’s no threat to me or anything in my possession.”

“Well, yes, but I feel an obligation. We are sort of bound together, in a way, and right now I’m the only person who knows she is a Black Wraith.”

That pronouncement brought sudden and total silence, the Inquisitor freezing with her sword upraised to hammer at the shield again.

Macraigh knew this was going to be his last significant act of magic, and that he must make it count. The good thing was that at this point, it was easy; he was already so diffuse a being that working magic came more naturally to him than pumping his own lungs. Once again, he reached out and connected his shadows to hers, to the arts by which she called on her goddess’s power while concealing her true affiliation—that to her other goddess. She had wrapped those shadows around herself by means of ancient demonic rituals, whereas he could manipulate them as intuitively as thought.

He simply gave them a little tweak, and brought Avei’s unique energy into direct contact with Elilial’s. From his expanded perspective, he knew that both goddesses would instantly and directly sense the presence of the other, and exactly what it signified. From a basic grasp of theology he knew which would immediately abandon her agent and flee from that fight, and which would do something aggressive.

Macraigh’s broadened senses told him every detail of what happened as Avei poured her power into the two Silver Huntresses, calling upon the rituals they had performed to gain their divine gifts and align themselves with their goddess. He saw, faster than thought, faster than they themselves were consciously aware of acting, the goddess-given instincts which compelled them to act with a physical speed that would have put elves to shame.

He was the only spectator to all this nuance. To the eyes of everyone else present, both Huntresses simply shot the Inquisitor in the head. At that range, their arrows pierced her skull fully, almost emerging from the other side. She slumped against Arachne’s arcane shield, and then to the ground.

While everyone was staring in shock at this, Macraigh expended his last focus, feeling consciousness bleeding away. With everything he had left, he fused into the enchantment he had just laid upon the four books of shadow. They slipped back into his Bag of Holding, and as his dark aura dissipated, the body beneath it being no longer there, the bag floated soundlessly to the ground.

Arachne watched the flurry of drama unfolding between the Silver Huntresses and the soldiers of the League over their Inquisitor’s corpse without lowering the shield that separated her from it. Instead of weighing in, she turned and began a steady conjuration of matter, systematically filling the inert Elder God shrine with rock and dirt and then piling more atop its recently-unearthed entrance.

Only when that was done did she finally turn and pick up the bag containing the secrets of shadow magic and the last vestiges of the man who had brought them to light.

“Better to light a candle,” she mused, smiling sadly. “I like that.”

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Bonus #39: Curse the Darkness, part 2

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Macraigh thought as rapidly as he ever had in his life, and talked while doing it.

“I’m a scholar as much as a wizard,” he babbled, “and this whole thing started with my search for the source of arcane magic. Naturally that directed me to look into the histories of the Elder Gods, such few as still exist.” Well, he had to give them something. That meant convincing them, first, that he had something to give, and then… Omnu’s breath, he’d been so certain he could do what he needed and be gone before the two had stopped squabbling and even looked for him; their legendary brawl at Mathenon had taken the better part of a day. “I haven’t found it, obviously, or even any promising leads, but quite by chance I have uncovered some very good prospects for countering infernal magic.” Planning on the fly while talking to cover his chain of thought and stall for time was an acquired skill, but this wasn’t his first try, and as usual he found a good hook in his own babbling: Arachne, at least, had fought in the last Hellwar and might be sympathetic to this angle. “That actually started by accident when I had to fend off a few Black Wraiths, and had the opportunity to study their casting a lot more personally than I wanted. I had already gathered a good deal of historical notes on the lost magics of the Elders, and—”

Zanzayed’s snort was a blast of wind that nearly knocked him down, and smelled bafflingly of brimstone and peppermint. “Do we look like your biographers, little man? Get to the point.”

“The chronicle of your adventures is interesting only to you,” Arachne added flatly, planting her fists on her hips. “You said you can figure out how to use shadow magic. And presumably it has something to do with this?” She shifted, giving a curious look to the recently-unearthed structure looming out of the ground nearby.

Right. Well, he’d known too many mages to find it a surprise that the greatest of their kind currently living were purely self-interested creatures. “Ah, yes, of course. Well, to cut a long story short—”

“Already too late,” the dragon grumbled.

“…I have tracked down detailed descriptions of the methods used by some of the Elder Gods to keep Scyllith contained. It seems she wasn’t any more well liked in their day than now. Specifically, those of their magics, which seem to still exist in trace amounts, which could be used to shape, isolate, and safely handle what we now call the infernal. I have confirmation that Elilial’s servants use some of these techniques, to judge by the interest the Wraiths have taken in my research.”

Zanzayed heaved a mighty sigh. By Nemitoth’s quills, how many mint plants would that dragon have to chew to make it smell like that? “So when you said you could unlock the secrets of shadow magic, you meant you’ve probably found one very specific use for it.”

“Much more than probably,” Macraigh said quickly, clutching his bag of holding in front of himself, “and multiple uses!”

“All having to do with infernomancy, though.”

“Well, yes, but—”

“Do I look like a red dragon?” he asked disdainfully. “You’ve got nothing. And that brings us back to the matter of—”

“Shut your jaws for once in your existence, Zanzayed,” Arachne ordered. “You, first of all. Reach into that bag and I’ll see to it your hand doesn’t come back out.”

“Um, I was going to say,” Macraigh offered timidly, “I have books in here. Very rare ones, not to mention all my own research. If you’re going to squash me or something, please preserve my books.”

“Fair,” she said with the ghost of a smile. “More importantly, you are talking about seizing the one advantage that makes the Wraiths what they are.”

“Poppycock,” Zanzayed snorted. “The Wraiths have Elilial’s own protection, everyone knows that. Demons are suffused with the infernal, dragons are too inherently magical to succumb to the corruption, and Elilial’s servants have her blessing. No one else can touch it safely.”

“Anything everyone knows is automatically wrong,” she snapped, “even if it happens to be correct, which that isn’t. When was the last time you had a conversation with a red dragon?”

“When did you?” he countered. “They are some of the least pleasant company imaginable.”

“Well, I can assure you there is more to Wraith technique than the Dark Lady’s personal touch. They have secrets which they guard jealously. If there is a shred of truth to what our young friend here has claimed—” She barely paused for Zanzayed’s incredulous snort. “—he’s talking about using shadow magic to get around them.”

“Actually, shadow magic is what they use,” Macraigh said. “At least in part.”

“And you know this how?” the dragon demanded, positively dripping skepticism.

Macraigh drew in a breath. The Inquisitor would probably be here in minutes; now that these two were no longer tearing up the countryside, they were a veritable lighthouse that would draw the attention of anyone looking for anything out of place. And she was stubborn enough, brave enough, and more than reckless enough to make a beeline for a dragon and an archmage instead of avoiding them like any sensible person would. He needed to get himself barricaded inside the ancient shrine before she arrived; he was too close to his goal to risk having her intercept him now. It was time to take some risks.

“I have a Wraith Codex,” he said.

Both of them blinked, which given the disparity in their sizes would have been comical under other circumstances. Dragon and elf looked at each other, then back at him.

“Bull,” Zanzayed enunciated crisply, “shit.”

“If I might be permitted to reach into my bag?” he asked, as submissively as he could manage. Arachne twisted her lips slightly, but then nodded. And why not—they both knew if he tried to pull out anything with which to fight them it would end swiftly and not in his favor. Her previous threats were mostly formalities.

He slipped one hand into the bag, instantly closing it around the item he wanted, and pulled out the book. Its rough leather cover was black, and marked with a spiky sigil which carried a sullen orange glow. Both of them stared at it in disbelief.

“I’m willing to, ah, donate this,” Macraigh said, despite the pang he felt at the prospect. He had paid dearly for that book. “I don’t actually need any secrets of infernomancy and I’ve taken plenty of notes on everything relevant to my research. I’m afraid you’d have to share, though. There’s only the one copy.”

“How did you get your hands on that?” the elf asked quietly. She was just staring at it, and Macraigh shifted infinitesimally toward her; the dragon was gazing down at him with a truly frightening expression of greed.

“It seems people acquire them with some regularity,” Macraigh explained, “but the Wraiths are very assiduous about eliminating them and everyone involved. They, ah, are under the impression they did so in this case, as well. But anyway, it does detail some of the methodologies by which shadow magic can be used to safely manipulate infernal magic. The problem is, all of these require some sort of initiation, like the divine or fae. A person can’t grasp the shadow schools without guidance from someone who already knows how, so there’s only so much a book can do to show the way.”

“And down in that thing,” she said, glancing again at the metal door, “is someone who can do this for you?”

“I have ascertained—that is, yes.” Macraigh slipped the book back into the Bag of Holding, on which their eyes remained fixed for a moment after it was gone. In theory, nobody but he should have been able to extract anything he had placed in the bag, but if anyone could crack that enchantment, it would be these two. If he had gambled wisely, they would prefer to take the risk he had more to offer them than just lift the bag from his corpse. “So, if you’d like to accompany me into—”

“Ah, ah, ah,” Zanzayed chided, lowering his head again and grinning that deeply horrifying grin. “Immortality is an active practice, you know, not a passive trait. Just because your species doesn’t suffer senescence does not mean you get to live forever. You accomplish that by not screwing around with things which are very likely to kill you.”

“And relics of the Elder Gods are very likely to kill you,” Arachne continued, folding her arms. She really wasn’t what Macraigh had expected from her reputation; she reminded him oddly of several teachers he’d had. “Even us. A conservative ninety percent of what the Elders did was insane and/or pointlessly sadistic, and that includes their leftovers. I am not going in there.”

“Nor I,” Zanzayed agreed, his grin stretching even wider.

“I…see,” Macraigh said, again thinking as fast as he could manage. The plan he had just hurriedly cobbled together hinged on coaxing these two to serve as a shield, ideally with them under his eye; could he afford to just leave them up here to detain the Inquisitor if—no, when—she caught up? He wasn’t sure about the outcome of letting that unfold outside his control. What if one or both of them sided with her? That didn’t seem likely, but…

“Also,” the dragon continued, “none of this explains why you felt the need to play your little prank on us.”

Well, if there was ever a time for some strategic honesty, this was it. “Well, you see, there was a convocation called at Mount Tira…”

“What, that plateau over the falls?” Zanzayed interrupted. “Nobody uses that for anything, the humans in the Tira Vales think it’s cursed.”

“If you ever paid attention to anything but girls and food,” Arachne said disdainfully, “you would be aware that there are bridges to it and temples built in the center now. The Pantheon cults have been using it for decades as a neutral site to meet and discuss…whatever it is religious people need to talk about.”

“Right,” Macraigh said, nodding, “and the last time, one of those subjects was forbidden magic. The Avenists named an Inquisitor to hunt the Black Wraiths, and she’s sort of got it into her head that I’m one of them or something, so…”

“Oh.” Zanzayed reared suddenly upright, causing Macraigh to shy reflexively away from him, and then emitted a boom of laughter. “So you prodded the two biggest menaces you could find into having a brawl right on top of your own target so your enemy wouldn’t dare chase you here! Arachne, the balls on this guy!”

“I do sort of grudgingly respect that,” she agreed with a wry little smile. “Nearly as much as I’m annoyed by it.”

“And it’s not so much that she wouldn’t dare follow me,” Macraigh added, “because I guarantee she would and did. I just figured you two could make it more or less impossible. So, if you’re not interested in helping me down in the Elder shrine, I’ll need to ask you to prevent her from entering after me.”

The dragon lowered his head again, this time to look down his long nose at Macraigh. “Careful, boy. Those balls can get too big for you to drag around.”

“I will share anything I learn with whoever stays up here to repel her,” he said quickly, “and you can have my Wraith Codex.”

“Hn,” Arachne grunted. “You do what you like, Zanza, but I consider that offer worth the affront to my pride, small as it was. It’s easy loot, too. Just teleport this Inquisitor into the sea…”

“Oh, please don’t do that,” Macraigh said earnestly. “I have gone well out of my way not to harm her or any of her allies the whole time she’s been after me.”

“Then you’re a sentimental nitwit,” she stated.

“Arachne, your astounding lack of people skills is one of the great mysteries of the world,” Zanzayed chuckled. “Just because you can easily eliminate someone who annoys you does not mean you ought.”

“That might be the stupidest thing anyone has ever said to me.”

“Actions have consequences, you little blonde clot! The poor boy has to clear his name at the end of this, after all. Don’t you see his gambit? He goes back to this convocation at Tira with all the secrets of the Black Wraiths and his proven track record of not harming any of the Pantheon’s servants, and they’ll pretty much have to embrace him as a hero.”

“Ah, I see,” she mused, turning an analytical stare on Macraigh. “But why do we need to care about that?”

“She’s just bluffing now,” Zanzayed informed him. “Arachne’s entire hobby is getting personal interviews with gods; even she doesn’t mishandle Pantheon clerics without a very good reason.”

“You said this Inquisitor is an Avenist?” the elf inquired. “Because I’ve already talked with Avei and quite frankly I relish the chance to tweak her nose.”

“Ignore her,” the dragon instructed. “So you knew the invocation to raise this entrance, that much is clear. How do you plan to get in there?”

“Ah.” Clearing his throat, Macraigh stepped over to the metal door. “That, as it happens, is the easy part.” So saying, he reached out and touched a finger to the center of the symbol emblazoned on its surface.

Nothing happened.

It really would be ironic, he reflected under their combined stare, if this was the point at which his research failed him. Leading him all this way to be blocked by something as pedestrian as a locked door. The thing looked like it was made of mithril; even if he could persuade these two to help, it was unlikely all of them combined could force their way in.

Then, after an excruciating pause, the metal panel shifted. A hiss of air emerged as it lowered fractionally, opening a crack at its top. There came a soft grinding sound, and then quite suddenly the entire thing slammed downward, opening the metal-lined shaft. A flight of stairs descended into shadow just beyond the entrance; as they all stared, magical lights flickered into being, illuminating the mithril corridor plunging down below the hillside.

“Very well, little mage,” said Zanzayed the Blue, shifting around and seating himself in a long arc that nearly encircled the entrance in a wall of cobalt-scaled flesh, “you have yourself a deal.”

“Fine, agreed,” Arachne huffed. “But keep in mind I fully expect whatever is in there to kill you in the most agonizing way possible. I’m not sticking around here one minute longer than my patience holds out; there is really no point. So be about your business quickly.”

“I thank you both from the bottom of my heart,” Macraigh said, bowing to each of them in turn. “And…you have my sincere apologies for tricking you. I didn’t think you’d be so reasonable about all this, or I’d just have approached you directly for—”

“Yes, yes,” Zanzayed interrupted lazily, shifting his head to gaze back in the direction of the road. “Presuming the contingent of armed people heading this way is your Inquisitor and friends, you’d better get a move on.”

And so he did.


He had journeyed into a number of ancient ruins in the course of his work. This one was by far the oldest, and easily the least ancient-looking. The whole thing wasn’t mithril, but it was mostly metal. Some segments of the walls gleamed like highly polished silver, while the floor was a matte black which he could only tell was metallic by touching it. Macraigh was no more of a metallurgist than being a general-focus mage required, and so couldn’t even recognize any of these alloys save the mithril of which the entrance stairwell was made. He had a feeling no one currently alive would have recognized all these materials, though.

The architecture also incorporated glass tubes like pillars around the walls, half-filled with some dark purple material which he could only tell was liquid (or had been at some point) because one of them had cracked and spilled a quantity of the sludge down its side; Macraigh stayed far away from that goop. That was the only sign of visible damage to the place. None of the metal had rusted, the air was on the stale side but breathable, and while there was dust over everything it did not seem like enough to have accumulated after all the thousands of years he knew this place had been buried.

Clearly some manner of enchantment had been at work to preserve the shrine. Just as clearly, it had failed with age.

A discovery like this deserved to be examined carefully and in the greatest detail, but Macraigh had to be mindful of his purpose and the uncertain time limit under which he labored. He was safe for interruption only as long as the patience of his two newfound benefactors held out—one of whom was notoriously irascible and the other an infamous pleasure-seeker, and both of whom had reason to be annoyed with him. Much as the need pained him, he simply could not afford to dawdle.

Nor, unfortunately, could he make much sense of the shrine. The Elder Gods weren’t much for iconography, and so he presumed the objects which lined the walls at waist height served a purpose, but he could not discern it. They were a series of flat black panels extending outward in metal frames, which did not respond to being touched. Probably magical in nature, and clearly out of power.

Well, something in here had to still be actively charmed. The lights had appeared when he entered, after all.

Macraigh examined the obelisk in the center of the floor; it was of the black metal, topped with a pyramid that looked to be a solid piece of glass, and was totally inert. With mounting worry that all of this would end up being for naught, he turned to the final interesting feature in the place, a larger fixture positioned against the wall of the circular chamber directly opposite the entrance. It was a bulky protrusion rather like a tombstone in shape, taller than he, made of mithril, and with another of those dark panels set into it at chest height.

This one also did not respond to being touched. He started to channel a tiny spark of arcane magic into it, then thought better of it. That might end up being his only recourse, but it was also an excellent way to trigger traps, curses, or cause every remaining enchantment in the place to spectacularly collapse.

So far, he had managed to see all of these effects only from a safe distance, and that only by dumb luck.

“Well, now what?” he asked aloud in frustration.

At his voice, the panel in the large protrusion turned white and began to glow. Macraigh bent forward to stare, and after a moment, several lines of text appeared upon it. Unfortunately, they were in the dead language of the Elder Gods, of which he had encountered only bits and pieces. None of what he now saw meant anything to him.

As he stared, the panel flickered in intensity, and the image wavered as if seen through rippling water, then stabilized. A sharp crackle sounded, causing him to hop backward, followed by a buzz. And then, finally, a voice. Unfortunately, it only spoke a few seconds of gibberish.

“Hello?” Macraigh said uncertainly. “My name is Laran Macraigh, of the Collegium of Salyrene. Whom have I the pleasure of addressing?”

An odd little chiming sounded, and some more inscrutable text appeared upon the magic panel.

“Dialect id-identified: Gaelic, sixteenth century. Transcension interlink n-n-n-not found,” it said. The voice was feminine, flat, businesslike, and resonated strangely as if it came from a great distance. Or as if more than one woman were speaking simultaneously. It was hard to tell; he had never heard a similar effect. Also, she appeared to have a stutter. “Av-avatar Zero Nine cannot be reached. Facil-cil-cility power at two percent. Please res-restore the traaaaaaaaa—” She broke off with an ungodly screech, then resumed in a steadier tone. “Please restore the transcension interlink to charge the facility’s power banks and enable the Avatar user interface.”

“Who are you?” he asked more directly, frowning in confusion. The words were familiar, mostly, but he still could not make sense of what she was saying.

“The facility’s sub-OS is active, user Laran Macraigh. Please restore the transcension interlink.”

“I’m…sorry, uh, Sub Ohess, but I don’t know what that means, much less how to do it.”

More chiming, then a pause. “If the transcension inter-in-interlink caNNNNNN.” Again, she broke off with a shriek that clearly did not come from any human throat, then resumed. “If the transcension interlink cannot be restored, most facility functions will be unavailable. Please state your query, user Laran Macraigh.”

He drew a breath, and straightened his shoulders. “I seek initiation into the ways of shadow magic.”

This time, he thought the chime sounded annoyed. “Avatar Zero Nine cannot be reached. The sub-OS is not designed for intuitive sapient interaction. Please state your directives clearly and concisely.”

Macraigh blinked twice. He had had enough bizarre experiences over the course of his mission that talking with some kind of ancient servitor spirit wasn’t hugely out of his depth, but being told by such an entity that it was too stupid for normal conversation was an entirely new kind of experience.

“Um…how to put this? I am researching the schools…that is, the kinds of magic that were personally created by the Elder Gods Druroth, Araneid, Rauzon, and Caraistha. Specifically, the applications of these magics that were used to counter and contain the personal magic of Scyllith. Ancient writings have led me to this spot as the likeliest source of this knowledge. Can you help me?”

“Th-this facility is designed for spec-spec-specialized tranNNNNNNN. Specialized transcension acclimation and training. This documentation is available to all users on request. Please insert a data crystal.”

Though the protruding structure in which the spirit apparently resided seemed to be all one seamless piece, an indentation suddenly appeared alongside the glowing panel.

“A data crystal?” Macraigh asked helplessly. “I don’t have anything like that. Are there any books available?”

“Printing,” she said tersely.

“Printing?” he repeated in fascination. “You mean you can actually print one, right now?”

For answer, another slot appeared, this one below the screen at of the same size. Within was a stack of papers some eight inches tall.

Hands trembling with reverence, Macraigh reached inside, finding that the stack was actually four books, bound in some thin material cut the same dimensions exactly as the pages—which were a crisp white paper unlike any he had seen before. They were printed, he found, flipping through the first, in easily legible Tanglic.

“Thank you very much, Sub Ohess,” Macraigh said fervently while loading the books into his Bag of Holding for later study. She chimed wordlessly in acknowledgment. “And…what about initiation? Ah, I think that is what you meant by acclimation, perhaps? You see, I already know some of the lore of shadow magic, but the ability to access it must be conferred directly, and you simply can’t get that from text alone…”

“Correct. Warning: these transcension fields are operating at minimal power. Ascended members of the Infinite Order responsible for them cannot be reached. Ac-acclimation is not advised at this time.”

He wasn’t about to tell this helpful spirit that her gods were dead. “I understand the risks, Sub Ohess. But if you are able to help me, I must embrace them.”

“There is insufficient facility power to guarantee com-completion of the acclimation process, user Laran Macraigh. The spec-specif-ified transcen-scen-sceiounnnNNN— The specified transcension fields are not operable at sufficient power to guarantee the completion of the acclimation process. An attempt will exhaust this facility’s power reserves entirely; a second will not be possible. Have you completed the pre-acclimation course of preparation?”

Macraigh blinked. “The what?”

“Unprepared sapients are at risk of serious complications. Common side effects of improperly administered acclimation are temporary psychosis and permanent, progressive dem-dem-dementia.”

He inhaled slowly. The Inquisitor was closing in, Arachne and Zanzayed were going to run out of patience soon… And if that happened, them leaving him to his own devices was the best case scenario. They might very well decided to add to his problems; he had certainly antagonized them enough. And to cap it all off, it turned out the shrine had only enough magic left to perform a single initiation.

This was his life’s work, everything had been leading up to this moment. Risks be damned, walking away now was just not an option.

“Are you prohibited from helping me, then?” he asked quietly.

“You have been not-notified of the potential hazards. Proceed at your own risk, user.”

“What…will happen to you, if we try?”

“This sub-OS will be inactive until power is restored.”

Macraigh closed his eyes. What was this spirit? Could she be considered a living being? If he understood, he was effectively asking her to sacrifice her life for this. She seemed oddly unperturbed at the prospect… Perhaps because she thought she could be restored when more power was delivered from the Elder Gods, and did not realize that could never happen.

It all came down to that question. One chance, one possibility only, demanding the destruction of this shrine, the death of its guardian, and the possible loss of his own sanity. And for all that, there was no guarantee it would even work. How could he possibly accept such a bargain?

And…how could he not?

“Forgive me,” Macraigh whispered, then opened his eyes. “I swear I will remember your sacrifice, Sub Ohess. Please forgive me, but I must do this. I ask that you proceed.”

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