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They came streaking out of the depths of the Golden Sea, leaving trails of black smoke across the sky. The skeletal figures made no formation, in fact fanning outward as they traveled; when they failed to do so, conflict erupted in brief midair scuffles, the necro-drakes snapping and clawing at each other before separating and banking away in a different direction. One particularly fractious pair actually locked together in a body brawl that cost them the use of their wings and began plummeting toward the prairie below. Only the intervention of a third spared them a crash, ironically, as another aggressive drake dive-bombed the clawing couple, the impact sending all three necro-drakes wheeling away in different directions, howling their outrage at one another.
And still more came, in twos and threes, snapping and shrieking and then separating, a steady stream of dozens emerging from the deep magical frontier and fanning out, their mutual hostility goading them to set off on multiple courses. Briefly they would turn and lash out at one another, but unlike the mad, almost demonic aggression of the first necro-drake which had perished at Veilgrad, something pushed them to restraint, at least with one another. The damage their brief clashes inflicted was healed immediately, but it served to nudge them away from further conflict, propelling them to fan out and fly far until they could no longer see one another.
As if something were guiding them from the outside, against their own nature.
Thus, what had begun as an airborne column from their point of summons was a broad fan by the time they began passing beyond the border of the Golden Sea itself, into the visually unremarkable Great Plains beyond, and spread further, widening into an array of courses that would send the monsters toward every part of the Empire east of the Wyrnrange and south of the Sea, from Veilgrad to Mathenon, and most definitely toward the central cluster of Tiraas, Madouris and Anteraas on the southern coast. And, of course, everything they would pass by on the way.
For all that it lay almost due south of the origin point in the Golden Sea’s center, by the time the flock had traveled that far they had spread to such an extent that only one of their number spied the lone mountain rearing up out of the prairie and veered toward it, driven by its fundamental compulsion to attack. Emitting its unearthly howl across the plains, it folded its wings and dived, streaking in a shallow descent toward the spires and terraces at the peak of the mountain, where it sensed life, and magic.
“Absolutely fucking not.”
Last Rock’s most notorious denizen was far too well-schooled in the ways of chaos to bother striking it directly with magic. Instead, the actual spell was deployed far in advance of the necro-drake’s course, and with a thunderclap that cracked windows and traveled even farther than the monster’s scream, a burst of solid air directed with the precision of a wandshot ripped out of the sky and slammed into the diving construct, physically shattering its pieces and sending them hurtling straight down to the prairie far below, well over half a mile short of the mountain itself.
They began reassembling almost immediately; within seconds the thing had drawn itself mostly back together, its broken body knitting into place and the cracks healing. It was just picking itself up out of the smashed tallgrass and shaking its head when she arrived.
Not reckless enough to teleport that close to a chaos effect, Tellwyrn nonetheless arrived with a suddenness that went well beyond an elf’s natural speed; despite her characteristically bombastic displays, she held countless tricks in reserve against the possibility of someone seeing and preparing for them, for situations exactly such as this.
“What part of I am on vacation do you lot keep failing to comprehend?” the diminutive blonde figure demanded shrilly, stomping through the tallgrass toward the chaos beast. “If it’s not tedious social events in Veilgrad or royalty gatecrashing my beach bungalow, it’s whatever the hell this is supposed to be!”
The necro-drake gathered itself enough to lunge at her, snapping its jaws, and immediately was yanked backward.
The wind picked up, howling all around them as the tallgrass in a broad circular area bent toward a point directly behind the drake’s tail; loose strands of vegetation, dirt, and insects went hurtling into the spot as if a hole in reality were trying to suck the entire contents of the prairie into a pinprick-sized point. The necro-drake barely managed to flatten itself to the ground, digging in its claws into the earth, as the force of wind dragged it inexorably backward. Its strength sufficed to keep it from coming loose, but the task demanded all four limbs. It couldn’t even raise its head to snap at Tellwyrn again.
“I’m a reasonable woman, despite what they say,” she commented, strolling closer at a more idle pace which belied the wind tugging at her hair and clothes, her slim figure otherwise undisturbed even though the force of attraction was now ripping up clumps of tallgrass and sucking them into the vacuum. “I get it; life is just full of inconveniences, interruptions, and miscellaneous pains in the ass. All I ask is that some effort be made to compensate me for my trouble, you know? Even if it’s just a token gesture.”
The necro-drake tried to lift its head to howl at her and immediately lost four feet of ground as the raised posture provided more surface area for the wind to push against. It flattened itself again, clinging desperately to the spots where its claw marks in the dirt terminated. The slim elf still stood upright against the torrent, unruffled aside from her ponytail.
“Vette is always a gracious hostess, if cloyingly quirky. Besides, it was gratifying to see Natchua thriving despite her various self-imposed setbacks. I worry about that kid. And Eleanora at least offers possibly the most fabulous set of knockers it’s ever been my privilege to rub my face all over. Top five, definitely. Not to mention her…statuesque personality and voluptuous intellect. Honestly it’s a shame she happened along at this point in both our lives; that girl is wife material if I ever saw it. You see my point, though?”
Tilting its head to one side, the necro-drake managed a desultory snap of its jaws and a noise that was more like a plaintive croak than its typical unearthly howl. Tellwyrn stared down at it over the rims of her golden spectacles.
“All you have to do is make it worth my while. In all the old stories, you’d never approach a great sorcerer or dragon, archfae or even demon lord without an offering in hand. There is a reason for that. Any interruption can be forgiven with the right bribe, or at minimum a token of respect. You, though? You neglected to bring me a present. And so you get the full grumpy.”
By sinking half its front foot into the ground, the necro-drake achieved enough leverage to haul itself two yards forward against the gale, stretching its neck and opening wide its jaws to threaten the elf even as dirt and loose tallgrass bounced off its obsidian skeleton.
Tellwyrn held up her right hand and snapped her fingers.
Another thunderclap roared across the prairie, the explosion of air for one instant pushing the tallgrass flat even against the ongoing torrent of pressure. With it came a second, massive blast of nearly solid air, striking the necro-drake full in the face from virtually no distance away. The hit dislodged and shattered it, and its pieces were sucked into the vacuum point before the monstrosity had the chance to be aware at had been attacked.
The moment the shards of obsidian and magic were drawn into that point, the pressure and howling wind ceased. With the spell in abeyance, an apple-sized black orb containing all the matter sucked into that point, compressed around the crushed chaos shard funneled into its center, fell to earth from a point about four feet up. Naturally, being as massive and impossibly dense as it was, the small object hit like an artillery strike, sinking several yards straight down and making the already-ravaged surface of the prairie around it ripple like water.
Event that failed to dislodge Tellwyrn, who was left standing on a disc of solid and undisturbed ground moments later when the dust settled. Scowling, she gestured with one hand, and the orb rose back up out of the ground to hover in place for a few seconds while an intricate weaving of divine, arcane and infernal magic slid into place around it, forming a lattice which funneled its inner chaos back in on itself to prevent so much as a flicker from escaping. Not for nothing was she one of the foremost experts on chaos magic still alive. The sorceress made a beckoning motion with her hand and the ball, now wrapped in streamers of multicolored light, drifted closer to her.
“Ugh,” she grunted. “Looks like valkyrie problems to me.”
Tellwyrn twisted her wrist, making a grasping motion in midair, and with a terrible screeching noise reminiscent of rending metal, the air itself tore apart, opening a doorway onto a dimmer version of the prairie with a seething mass of colossal tentacles blotting out the distant sky. Amid the twisting morass, enormous eyes blinked, several immediately turning to glare directly at the aperture.
The elf just flicked her hand and sent the ball of compressed chaos hurtling through, then released her grip on the portal itself before it could hit the ground. The gate slammed closed with another burst of thunder.
Snorting irritably, Tellwyrn adjusted her spectacles and turned slowly around, scanning the sky in various directions. Nothing out of the ordinary was visible to the naked eye, but for multiple reasons that applied no limitation to her.
“Huh. That is…a lot of those bastards. And you just know they’re gonna expect me to deal with this. Of course, I always have to do everything. What’s it going to take for everybody to comprehend that I am retired? For fuck’s sake, I teach history now. I gave the world twenty-nine centuries of adventuring services, you can all fix your own shit for once!”
She hesitated, glaring at the sky, then sighed heavily.
After all the thunderclaps, the minute pop of her departure was anticlimactic, leaving behind a thoroughly destroyed stretch of prairie outside Last Rock in the universal symbol that Tellwyrn had been here.
Captain Afarousi’s bellow was barely audible through the discharge of battlestaves, the crash of broken masonry and the spine-twisting howl of the monster itself, but her soldiers weren’t idiots. The beast finished climbing out of the wrecked tower it had just dive-bombed and lunged across the battlements, where the wall’s defenders were already lunging out of the way, taking shelter behind chunks of fallen stone or within craters made in the wall itself; several chanced the ten-foot drop to the sloping tile roof of the guardhouse below.
Its tail scraped what was left of the battlements as it roared across the walltop, swiping at fleeing Royal Guards. Afarousi yanked open the heavy door to the next guard tower, frantically gesturing the three nearest soldiers through before being the last after them; the necro-drake bore down on her with such speed she very nearly didn’t make it.
There was no time to pull the door shut after, she just dived out of the way around the wall, and in the next instance the whole tower shook. Stone bulged inward from the outer wall where the monster impacted, and in the shuddering of the whole edifice Afarousi found herself fearing the structure was about to come down on top of them.
She landed on her back, losing her grip on her staff, and was forced into an undignified crab scuttle to gain further distance as one skeletal claw was thrust through the tower door, swiping blindly at them.
The crack of a battlestaff discharging in an enclosed space that close was utterly deafening, but Captain Afarousi wasn’t about to complain when the monster’s entire claw shattered, obsidian bones splintering to fragments and its necrotic-looking ligaments dissolving. Another keening roar of outrage made the already beleaguered tower shudder further, but at least the necro-drake pulled back what was left of its arm.
The shot had bought only seconds, she knew. Already the pieces were flowing back outward as the thing reassembled itself. Afarousi got her feet under her and lunged to the side, scooping up her staff and shouting for her soldiers to retreat to the tower’s opposite entrance, where the stretch of wall on the other side hadn’t yet been hit. She herself knelt beside the wholly inadequate shelter of an upturned table, bracing her battlestaff in a firing position to buy them moments when the monster attacked again.
It would attack again. Nothing stopped it. She’d already seen it tear through priests and mages as well as common soldiers, both Calderaan and Imperial. Directed magic misfired in wholly unpredictable ways around the chaos beast, but at least the lightning bolts of conventional wands and staves did some damage. Small damage that immediately reversed itself, but that was the best they’d managed.
Before the second blow finished off the tower, though, there came a fusillade of shots from the near distance and the necro-drake yowled again as it was hammered by lightning bolts from the north, outside the walls. The tower shuddered again as it shifted and launched itself off the broken battlements.
Wasting no time, Afarousi darted to the doorway and peered out.
A squad of Imperial troops had taken position on a stony rise just outside the city, where they had formed a firing line and hammered it with a full volley. The necro-drake immediately descended on them, and she could only watch in sickened anticipation, having seen this already.
But a cerulean glow had already risen around the small squad, and with a flash of blue light, the entire group vanished, seconds before the monster landed on their hill. Keening in frustration, it pivoted this way and that, actually lifting its claws to check under them like a confused cat which had just lost a mouse.
Captain Afarousi spared a prayer of blessing for the Emperor. She and the other Sultana’s Royal Guards had been holding the line purely because the Imperial troops helping man the walls of Calderaas had been among the first to perish in the attack; they had better weapons, and had even managed to hit the monster with a mag cannon burst. In those first moments, none of them understood what they were facing, and by the time Afarousi and the other survivors had learned that magic would backfire against this foe, it was too late for the first line of defenders. The superior tactics and weapons of the Imps had been their own undoing.
They’d already learned, though, repurposing their battlemages to strict teleportation. As she watched, another squad heckled the necro-drake with staff fire from further out, on another rise flanking the north road out of the city, then themselves disappeared in another flash when it tried to charge them.
“Report,” she ordered hoarsely.
“We’re proper fucked, Captain,” Saldaan stammered.
Afarousi jabbed him with the butt of her staff, but not hard. She didn’t spare him the full strength of her glare, though.
“No more of that, Guardsman,” she snapped. “These are the walls of Calderaas. They don’t fall while there is a living drop of the Royal Guard’s blood still up and fighting!”
That turn of phrase didn’t exactly hold up to semantic scrutiny, but it did its job; Saldaan and the others within her field of view straightened up, their expressions hardening, and she got a salute from him and several other grim nods.
She also got a stark visual reminder that there were only seven of them. Seven of her soldiers, still standing and with weapons in hand. Avei send that more of the cohort were sheltering elsewhere and seeking to regroup, but Afarousi did not kid herself that she hadn’t lost a great deal of her command today. What remained of the battlements were liberally splattered with blood and worse; she had seen far too many fall with her own eyes. Goddess’s grace, right within her field of view now was an arm protruding from beneath a boulder that had minutes ago been part of the next tower. No need to guess why it wasn’t moving; it was even odds whether it was still attached to the rest of someone under there.
“We hold,” she stated. “The Imperials are adapting their tactics: look, they’re leading it away. We don’t have attached mages like them, and our…” She had to pause and swallow heavily against a swelling in her throat. Aliana had died right in front of her, early on, standing fearlessly up to the beast like a Sister of Avei should. Afarousi had been counting down days till the Sisterhood rotated their detachment again, so Aliana was no longer under her command and it wouldn’t be inappropriate to ask her… In the next moment, she shoved all that ruthlessly aside to be dealt with if she was still alive at the end of the day. There was no time while the battle still raged. “What we have are our weapons and our training, and our oath to the Sultana. So long as any part of this wall stands, we will hold it.”
“CALDERAAS ETERNAL!” they chorused, two brandishing staves overhead. Including, Afarousi was gratified to see, four more of her men and women who had clambered out of improvised cover elsewhere along this shattered stretch of the wall.
That relief was short-lived, though, as the third attempted guerrilla strike by the Imperials failed spectacularly. The mages were just a hint too slow, and the teleportation fizzled as the necro-drake dived onto them.
Several of her Guards averted their gaze; Afarousi forced herself to watch. It didn’t last long. At least the Imps got in a few shots before they fell. Sometimes, that was all a soldier could hope for.
Gods above, this was supposed to be peacetime. This was Calderaas, deep in the heart of the Empire. Mosters attacking cities was fairy tale nonsense out of the Age of Adventures. This wasn’t supposed to be happening.
Immediately she could see the crack in the Imps’ improvised strategy; it depended on improbably precise timing. The next leapfrogged squad was already too far away to continue the maneuver. They fired a volley at the necro-drake but they were already out of effective staff range, and the lightning bolts arced off course well before reaching their target.
The beast raised its skeletal head as if sniffing the air. It did, indeed, turn to glare at the Imperial squad, which they answered with more potshots, but then it twisted again to look at the city.
Staring at its disturbingly chromatic eyes, Afarousi felt she could feel the hatred simmering in it. That thing wasn’t trying to eat, or seek revenge, or anything an animal might do. It just wanted to cause destruction. To kill.
With one beat of its wings, it launched itself into the air and surged back toward the city.
“We need to consolidate,” Captain Afarousi heard herself say. “Saldaan, take everyone to the north gatehouse and place yourself under Colonel Fedmadhev’s command. I’ll make sure you’ve got time to get there.”
“I have given my orders!”
To their credit, her soldiers turned and ran without further debate, though they knew what this meant.
As a line of soldiers fled through the half-broken tower and across the wall on the other side, the necro-drake shifted its focus slightly, winging toward them just as she had expected. It had already demonstrated it was drawn to moving targets.
So Afarousi shot it. Not with her battlestaff—it was still well out of range—but her sidearm.
In many ways, service in the Royal Guard was a welcome reprieve from the Game of Houses that constantly plagued the city; in the Sultana’s direct service there was strict discipline and she was addressed only by military rank by both superiors and subordinates. She had been eager to enlist for that reason, and not just because service was an honored tradition of House Afarousi. But she was still the Lady Shahrizad Fatimah Afarousi, and that meant she had certain privileges—such as her custom wand, a gift from her father. While a true enchanter’s wand would deploy a versatile beam of magic and thus prove ineffective here, this was a layperson’s sidearm, expensive for far more than its mother-of-pearl grip and intricate platinum fittings. It fired a particle beam that would travel for miles if uninterrupted and strike with the precision of a logarithm.
And Captain Afarousi was a crack shot, because she had practiced until she could make that claim. Because she felt a soldier ought to be.
She nailed the bastard right between the eyes.
Very much to her surprise, it went down.
With a howl that sounded very much like pain, the necro-drake folded up in midair and twisted about as if it had just plowed into a wall, plummeting to the road while the Captain lowered her wand, staring in disbelief. Had she accidentally found a weak point?
Not weak enough, she discovered as it immediately surged upright again, its gaze now fixed unmistakably on her. The necro-drake screamed in rage. She shot it again; this time it twisted its skull just enough that the beam raked its cheek instead of hitting it again in the forehead.
“Come on then, you evil shit,” Afarousi hissed, then roared back at it. “CALDERAAS ETERNAL!”
Death met her challenge, springing forward and shooting right at her, this time undeterred by the beams and lightning bolts with which she pelted it, firing with both hands. There was a strangely pure clarity in that moment, knowing how it was about to end, so much so that she felt something like vertigo when it did not.
A streak of Light plummeted from the sky right in front of her, and for the second time in ten seconds, the necro-drake hit the ground, this time with a winged shape atop it, hacking with a glowing sword.
The monster screamed, twisted, and bucked violently, managing to dislodge its attacker. It surged aloft again, no longer coming at Afarousi, who was so startled by these developments that she forgot to shoot it again.
Almost immediately, though, the other flying figure got its bearings and resumed the attack, arcing through the air to strike the necro-drake directly on its side, where its neck met its body. They both crashed down right atop the wall just yards from Afarousi, so close she had to jump back to avoid an errant swipe from one skeletal wing as the beast thrashed.
Its struggles were short-lived as the glowing warrior brought its sword down in one mighty swing and hacked straight through the neck, beheading the monster.
Immediately, of course, it began trying to knit itself back together, but that momentary decapitation made the rest of the body go limp, buying the warrior time to leap astride the upper part of its remaining neck, bring its sword up, and ram it straight downward, point-first, through the exact spot in the center of its forehead where Afarousi had shot it.
In the next instant, it was nothing but black glass. The necro-drake disintegrated in pieces which fell to litter the broken walltop and cascade down both sides; as the multi-hued light vanished from its eye sockets, the smoke put off by its body and the glowing tendrils binding its “bones” together vanished, leaving behind nothing but shards of obsidian.
Captain Afarousi found herself alone atop the wall with something even more out of legend than the monster.
It was a tall and rather androgynous figure, clad in luminous golden armor over a pure white robe, its eyes blazing with holy light. Behind it spread glowing wings, like those the Hand of Avei was said to manifest in moments of the Goddess’s personal blessing, but these seemed permanent, and solid. As she stared, the divine warrior withdrew its sword from the cracked skull, raised one booted foot, and stomped hard.
The black skull shattered under it.
“What,” she said numbly. “Who are…”
“I am Angelus.” The warrior’s voice was like a choir, like a dozen voices in perfect harmony. “I serve the Universal Church.”
“And what…was that?”
“It was evil,” they replied, “and there are more of them. I must go. Rally your defenders, soldier; this fight is just begun. All must be ready.”
They fanned their wings once, and shot aloft, leaving her alone on the wall with the shards of the greatest enemy Calderaas had faced in living memory.
Captain Afarousi craned her neck, watching the glowing figure arc away through the sky until it was lost to distance, then turned to stare around her.
The walls were all but shattered along this stretch. Dozens if not over a hundred brave soldiers had fallen in their defense. But alarm bells were ringing through the city, the belltowers and minarets untouched, citizens still rushing to get to shelter. For all that they had been slaughtered, the defenders had stopped the beast at the wall. Or at least, kept its attention long enough for the Angelus to arrive. It had not gotten so far as to fly inward and rampage in the city itself.
The walls of Calderaas had held.
She wished it felt more like a victory.