Tag Archives: Sheyann

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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12 – 59

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The sunset had gone unnoticed, as the night blazed with hellfire.

For a half mile all around, the tallgrass had been scoured to ash, and even beyond that, fallout from various spells burned merrily. The stars were obscured by an ugly blend of airborne ash, greenish clouds of some residue from a misfired hex, and the angry glow of portals and dimensional rents both half-formed and fully blaring infernal energy onto the scene. All around lay the corpses of demons, those which hadn’t already crumbled to charcoal when the magic left them, interspersed with fresh craters and clumps of jagged obsidian one of the two warlocks had called up to make the landscape nearly impossible to navigate.

Still, they fought on, and at this point only one was growing tired.

Their styles were virtually opposite. The Sleeper was on his fourth suit of armor and the most haphazard yet, as he was continually battered by Iris’s spells and had to re-arrange his defenses under ever-increasing pressure. Whether or not he still cared about concealing his identity, some manner of magical protection was absolutely essential for survival in the hellscape they had created, and so he was still warded, but down from his earlier hulking carapace to a human-sized shroud of greenish flame, hastily fixed into conventionally styled plates of armor. He summoned demons, cast circles which either blocked her path or spat out hostile magic, used curses to alter the terrain with clouds of dust, darkness, and even a patch of slowed time.

The Sleeper had (almost) all the knowledge of the queen of Hell herself, and he was barely slowing her down. He would long since have given up and fled if his opponent had let him.

Iris had virtually no style, not technique at all. She did basically nothing but hurl fire and shadow, and yank open dimensional rents which devoured his spells and occasionally spat more fire and tendrils of darkness to impede his way. He called up demons, and she effortlessly blasted them to ash. His summoning circles went haywire at her merest glance, flickering out, exploding dangerously, or even altering to unleash horrific magical backlash on their creator. Curses, area-of-effect attacks, even direct damage spells she easily unraveled, neutralized, or hurled right back at him, without even seeming to realize what she was doing. Every time he tried to run, shadowy tendrils snared him, or a new rip appeared in reality, unleashing a blast of force that hurled him back toward her. That was still gentler than what happened when he attempted to shadow-jump, a prospect upon which he had given up early in their duel.

The fire-armored Sleeper finished obliterating the obnoxious tentacles of shadow which had impeded his last escape attempt and turned to face her once more. Iris paced forward with a measured stride, face still twisted in a snarl of animal fury. Her dark skin and white dress were both liberally stained with ash, but neither had suffered so much as a burn or scrape.

He gesticulated with both arms, and all around her, a ring of thirteen spell circles formed out of the air, glowing flame-orange with infernal runes. The very air within them thickened, darkened, the charred ground beginning to bubble.

Iris made a slashing motion with one hand, and five of the circles on that side shattered like glass; the rest, destabilized, began to misfire, causing the shadows to dissipate and the aggressive decay to spread outside their boundary. Even as she strode forward beyond their range and the remaining circles collapsed, he was already conjuring again.

The orb of flame which descended from the sky at a steep angle was the size of a house, and moving at such an impossible speed it was almost upon her seconds after its first appearance over the horizon; Iris was already pointing at it before it came into view, and a mere two yards from impacting her it struck an invisible barrier and rebounded, arcing through the air to strike the ground scarcely twenty yards away. The roar and shockwave of the explosion blasted everything in the vicinity clear, momentarily obscuring the whole scene.

The Sleeper, relatively secure behind his armor, seized this opportunity to flee again. As before, he didn’t make it more than two steps. This time, rather than the multitude of shadow tendrils which had grabbed him previously, a single tentacle burst from the ground, coiling around his ankle, and whipped him through the air to slam him against the ground.

“Well, you got your way,” Iris said, stalking forward. “Proud of yourself? Are you happy? Is this what you wanted to see?!”

He tried to roll to his feet to face her, and the tentacle yanked him away again, smashing him to the ground a few yards away in the other direction. The shadowbolt he had barely formed went careening harmlessly into the sky.

The Sleeper, still alert despite the impacts, unleashed a blast of fire at the tentacle holding his leg, just in time for another to grab his arm and whirl him away again. This one whipped him back and forth, smashing him hard on the ground three times in three places yards apart before finally giving him a break.

This time, he just lay there, apparently stunned. And this time, Iris finally closed the gap.

Seething darkness appeared over her hand like a gauntlet as she bent to grasp him by the neck. Iris straightened up, hefting the Sleeper bodily upright, a feat for which she likely lacked the physical strength; more tendrils of shadow sprang up from the ground, snaring his limbs and helping to push him upward.

“Might as well keep your secrets,” she said coldly, glaring at the inscrutable mask of flame. “We’ll find out who you were when somebody doesn’t show up for class tomorrow.”

“Need…me…” His voice was weak, clearly male, disguised this time by fatigue, smoke inhalation, and possibly the grip of the dark gauntlet around his throat. Even without his earlier pretentious vocal effect, it was unrecognizable. “I can fix—”

“Professor Tellwyrn is the greatest mage in the world, you little stain,” she snarled. “Your curse won’t last much longer, anyway.”

The air around them rippled again, and Iris turned her head in the direction from which the wave had come, raising a hand. Two figures had appeared upon the charred landscape nearby, neither of them demons.

“Miss Domingue, I presume?” the dwarf said politely. “Your Professor sent us. Dear me, what a mess,” he added, peering around at the destruction and ongoing infernal radiation.

“This must cease,” added his companion, a tall Tidestrider man with an octopus tattoo along his right arm.

A sharp crack sounded, and the Sleeper’s armor began to fragment. Fractures appeared and spread across it, white lines interrupting the dance of the green flames, making them resemble reflections in a broken mirror.

“No, you don’t,” Iris snapped, squeezing harder. A thin film of purple shadow coalesced over his body, even as the fractures deepened and spread further.

“Oh dear,” said the dwarf. “A little closer, Haunui, if you please. This is going to be tricky.”

He made a lifting motion with both hands, and four square basalt columns thrust upward from the ground around them in a square formation, trailing lengths of black chain from their upper edges. They rose to a height of seven feet, all the while the lengths of chain reached for each other as if magnetic. Within seconds, they had formed an impromptu cage.

“What is this?” the Wavespeaker demanded. Before Wrynst could reply, the Sleeper exploded.

The noise alone was enough to knock a person bodily over; the concussion of the blast made the cage shudder, to say nothing of the wash of white-hot flame with raked away a foot of topsoil in all directions. It was over quickly, though, leaving Iris holding a handful of nothing.

“No,” she whispered, staring at her black glove even as it dissipated. There was no sign of the Sleeper at all; nothing had survived in the vicinity except Wrynst’s cage, which had only barely endured. Lengths of chain broke away and fell like pieces of dried-up vines, and one of the square columns, cracked across its middle, toppled over.

“An inverted containment spell,” Wrynst said matter-of-factly as Haunui pushed his way out of the now-limp chains. “Only effective against infernal power, but rather impressive, if I say so my—”

He was cut off by Iris’s scream of pure frustration. She sank to her knees, then toppled forward, slamming both her fists into the ground.

“I had him! I was so close!” She began rhythmically punching the earth, kicking up puffs of ash with each blow. “All of this was for nothing. Years of work, my whole life, gone for nothing!”

“Child.” Haunui had strode over quickly, and now knelt in front of her. “Nothing is gone.”

“LOOK AT THIS!” she screamed at him, throwing her arms wide.

As far as they eye could see in every direction, the golden tallgrass was gone; flickers of fire still raged along the horizons. There were several impact craters still, though the other detritus of their fight had been destroyed by the final destructive spells she and the Sleeper had unleashed. The sky was all but hidden by a sick mockery of the northern lights, seething rents in reality from which tongues of flame and eye-wrenching darkness seeped all around.

“This is all I’m good for,” Iris said, suddenly toneless. Her arms fell limply to her sides. “I was just fooling myself. First time it came down to it, this is—”

Haunui grasped her face gently in both hands, capturing her attention.

“The tide comes and goes, beyond our power to affect,” he said, holding her gaze in perfect calm. “The wind blows as it will, bringing what it will. The world turns, the clouds change. We are specks adrift on the surface, hefted by powers we cannot contest. This is true.”

“Excuse me,” said Wrynst from a short distance away, “but this whole area is massively unstable. We had really better—”

“The one thing that is yours to command,” Haunui continued, ignoring him, “the one thing, is your own hand on the tiller. The world will do with you whatever it does. You, and only you, decide who you are.”

“I can’t,” she whispered. Tears streamed down her cheeks, washing over his callused fingers. “I can’t do this. I lost it all.”

The shaman smiled gently. “Child, I hear the spirits around you still. They do not abandon you so quickly; no friend does. Still your mind, as you were taught. Reach out, and find them still there.”

“But…”

“Reach,” he insisted. “You are your choices, not your gifts. Reach out. Make a choice.”

Iris heaved in a shaking breath, swallowed heavily, and closed her eyes.

“I really must insist we go,” Wrynst said nervously. “Sheyann was unsure how long she could sustain the link anyway, and we are surrounded by active and uncontrolled dimensional rifts. Now, please!”

“We will heal them,” Haunui said, not looking up from Iris’s face. “Patience, warlock. What was done will be undone. What was destroyed, remade. The magic of the earth and the wind holds sway here, not the magic of the nether.”

Wrynst threw up his hands in a hopeless gesture, turning and stomping back toward the point at which they had first appeared.

Haunui closed his own eyes. Light blossomed along his tattoo, the inked tentacles glowing brilliant green along his arm and back. For achingly long moments, he and Iris knelt in the dust, eyes closed, while hellfire flickered hungrily in the destruction all around them.

A faint whisper of wind rose.

The first changes were too slight and too slow to be noticeable, but they swiftly grew in speed, and strength. The glaring rents in the sky began to close, shrinking to points and lines until finally the last flickers of fire and shadow vanished. Reality reasserted itself, the corruption of the infernal shrinking away. Finally, after scarcely a minute had passed, the last of them were gone, and the stars shone again unimpeded.

Iris drew another breath again, shaking from a withheld sob, but a smile blossomed on her face.

“They do not forget so quickly,” Haunui repeated. “Come, there is more to do.”

It took a few minutes longer, but finally the first green shoots began to appear. Once they initially manifested, they grew quickly, rising and spreading. In another ten heartbeats, the fires in the distance had flickered out and a veritable carpet of pale green spread around them. As the two knelt, concentrating in silence, the tallgrass continued to blossom, pushing its way upward.

The rate of its growth slowed as rapidly as it had first accelerated, and all too soon came to an apparent stop. It was nowhere near as well-developed as the usual grasses of the Sea, rising barely knee-high, and the green of new shoots rather than the golden amber of the mature tallgrass…but it was there, spreading away in all directions over what had been a battlefield torn by flame. Dips in the landscape still marked the craters left by spells of destruction, but they were covered by a green shroud of new growth.

From somewhere nearby, impossibly, came the chirp of a cricket.

Haunui let out a long sigh, at last opening his eyes, and lowering his hands from Iris’s face. “These things go in cycles, as you know well. Ash is good for the ground. Look.”

She finally opened her own eyes, meeting his gaze, then following it to a point on the ground between them.

A single red flower rose from the soil amid the blades of new tallgrass, a cluster of cone-shaped blossoms shifting slightly in the faint breeze. The old symbol of regrowth after fire, the versithorae, a bloom that only rose from ashes. A sign of the earth’s forgiveness.

“As I live and breathe,” Wrynst marveled, gazing around. “You actually did it… Total infernal nullification. I’d never have thought such a disaster could be cleaned so quickly.”

“A choice was made,” Haunui said gravely, finally standing up. He held a hand down to Iris.

After a moment, she tore her gaze from the flower and looked up at him. Her dark eyes were clear, despite the tracks left by tears through the dust on her cheeks. Finally, she accepted his hand.

“Thank you.”

He nodded to her, once, then turned back to the warlock. “And now, we had better go. It does not do to keep an Elder waiting.”

Wrynst sighed and rolled his eyes. “Well, if you’re certain you’re finished here.”

“We’re done,” Iris said in a small voice. “Let’s go. Please.”


“Uh, Professor,” Gabriel said nervously, “if you don’t mind my asking—”

“Because, Arquin,” Tellwyrn said, “some problems are not best solved by exercising force. If I thought Iris in danger you had better believe I would be there myself. The situation, however, is that she needs to be rescued from the Golden Sea, not the Sleeper. We need the best shaman and the best warlock to navigate the shifts inflicted upon it. That means Wrynst and, with Sheyann forced to stay here and hold the path open, Haunui. Trust me,” she added grimly, “I’m not worried about the Sleeper hurting her. I guarantee he is regretting forcing Iris Domingue into a corner right now.”

“Um,” he said carefully, “…okay.”

Gabriel had dismissed Whisper, who tended to quickly grow restive with nothing to do. Now they all stood in the tallgrass at the outskirts of the Sea, waiting. Sheyann knelt on the ground, eyes closed and lips moving constantly in a silent soliloquy; nearby, an unceasing rustle moved back and forth through the tallgrass where Maureen paced, muttering to herself. Tellwyrn and Gabriel simply stood, she staring fixedly at the horizon, he fidgeting.

“Actually,” he offered after a terse silence, “I was going to ask—”

“They’re coming,” Sheyann said suddenly, relief audible in her voice, as well as fatigue. Maureen darted toward them, pushing amber stalks roughly aside.

Reality itself heaved, the ground seeming to roll like the tide, without actually displacing the grass or any of them standing upon it. The undulation carried three figures, though, and deposited them right in front of the group.

“Iris!” Maureen wailed, throwing herself forward.

Iris, filthy and clearly exhausted but apparently unharmed, knelt to catch her, wrapping the gnome up in a hug and rocking slightly back and forth.

Tellwyrn quickly joined them, bending down to rest a hand on Iris’s shoulder, heedless of the ash staining her dress.

“Iris,” she said in an uncharacteristically soft voice, “are you all right?”

Iris nodded, swallowed, and finally looked up. “I’m not hurt. Professor… I’m sorry. I almost had him, but—”

“None of that,” Tellwyrn said firmly. “I’m responsible for protecting you, not the other way round. I’m sorry. What’s important is that you are okay. We’ll finish dealing with the Sleeper very soon, I promise you.”

“I’m not absolutely certain he got away, though,” Wrynst added, straightening his robe. “That effect he unleashed… It might have been a ploy to conceal a shadow-jump, or it may honestly have been his destruction, whether self-inflicted out of spite or resulting from the damage you did. Either way, it was a desperate maneuver. You really had him on the ropes, young lady.”

“Keeping us in the dark would be just like him,” Gabriel chimed in, then added fervently, “I am damn glad to see you back safe, Iris. We were worried sick.”

She actually twitched, her eyes falling on him and widening in shock. Iris opened her mouth, but no sound emerged.

Maureen’s shoulders jerked slightly, and she finally drew back, grinning. “Oh, aye, that reminds me. Before I forget to tell ye, Gabe’s here. He’s the one who came to fetch us; hasn’t left ever since, not till we were sure you were safe.”

“I—uh—I mean…thank you,” Iris said weakly, ending on a squeak.

Tellwyrn sighed, straightening. “Sheyann? Are you all right?”

“Quite well, thank you, Arachne,” the Elder said smoothly. “That was by no means easy, but far from the most tiring thing I have ever undertaken. Most instructive, as well. You know, I may have gained some insight into Kuriwa’s trick of traveling between places.”

“Now, why the hell would you want to do a damn fool thing like that? Let Kuriwa play footsie with unspeakable horrors if she wants. I thought you had more sense.”

Sheyann raised an eyebrow, but smiled faintly in amusement. “I allowed you to teleport me for this escapade of yours, Arachne; I expect to be spoken to with a bit more restraint. At least for a while.”

“Yes, you’re right. Sorry.” Tellwyrn sighed heavily, and grimaced. “I’ve been quickly using up my store of restraint over the last two days.”

“In fact, you’ve been doing quite well,” Sheyann replied, gliding over to pat her on the shoulder. “Don’t think I haven’t noticed. You have conducted yourself very nearly like a person with normal, basic social skills. It may seem an odd thing to say, Arachne, as I certainly have no claim to responsibility for you, but I am…proud.”

Tellwyrn glared at her. Then, incongruously, her lips twitched, and she emitted a soft snort that was clearly the lesser part of a laugh.

“Well…all right. We’ve got a crowd back at Last Rock to reassure, most of you will be needing some food and rest, and I owe a series of explanations to several people. Most urgently, Iris had better get into a bath and then bed. Let’s move this out, people. Wrynst, Haunui, I thank you very sincerely for helping to protect my student.”

“Oh, no need for that, Professor,” Wrynst said cheerfully. “This beats the daylights out of laboratory work. I’m having a smashing old time!”

Haunui just nodded gravely.

They started slowly, Iris having to detach herself from Maureen and push upright with obvious weariness, but soon enough the little procession got underway, heading back toward Last Rock. Tellwyrn stood aside, letting them all pass before finally bringing up the rear, alongside Gabriel, who had hovered nearby.

“So, Professor,” he said in a low tone, nodding at Wrynst and Haunui a few yards ahead of them. “What I was actually going to ask… Who are those guys?”

She sighed. “Later, Arquin. Tomorrow, you’re going to learn a lot of things, some of which will explain the presence of all the…guests I brought with me. More immediately… Gather your comrades when we reach the town, if you would. Before people start scattering to the winds and spreading rumors, there are some things you’ll need to understand.”

He followed her gaze past Haunui’s shoulder, to where Iris was trudging along, slumped with exhaustion, then nodded silently.

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12 – 57

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They emerged from the alley into more trouble.

“Contact!” Rook called rather shrilly, placing himself in front of Danny and lifting his staff to take aim at the two figures in gray robes suddenly dashing down the street toward him.

Before he could fire, perhaps luckily, Joe pushed past, raising one of his wands. Two short, clean beams of light pierced each attacker straight through the head, causing them to collapse mid-stride.

“Holy shit,” Finchley said somewhat tremulously.

“Keep it together,” Moriarty muttered. “We have a mission still to complete.”

Kheshiri was the last out of the alley. She paused upon the sidewalk, surveying Joe’s handiwork with her fists on her hips, and incongruously grinned. “Well, well, you are learning!”

“Shut up,” Joe said curtly, his eyes scanning the street. It was narrower than the main avenue they had been trying to reach at the other end of the alley, and looked less planned, to judge by the way it kinked back and forth around irregularly-placed old buildings. Altogether this was a much more ambush-friendly corridor, though at least it showed no further evidence of cultist activity at the moment.

“Really, I applaud your dedication to preserving life,” Kheshiri continued in an overtly mocking tone. “I warned you, though: berserker drugs. Shooting to disable is not going to accomplish anything. Ah, well, what matters is you eventually got the—”

Joe very calmly turned and shot her through the foot. She yelped and staggered back, slumping against the face of the nearest building.

“Whoah, hey!” Rook protested.

“I understand the impulse, Joe,” Danny said more quietly, “but she’ll only keep needling if you give her reactions, and that isn’t going to help. If you’re not going to kill her, please don’t wind her up.”

The three ex-soldiers glanced at each other with wide-eyed alarm, while Joe heaved a heavy sigh.

“Fine,” he grunted after a pause. “We’d best move out.”

“Oh, I’m all right, thank you for your concern,” Kheshiri said bitingly. Indeed, after holding her foot off the ground for a moment and flexing her ankle, she set it down again, and set off up the street without any trace of a limp. “Good call, time is precious and enemies abound. This is the fastest—”

“Not that way,” Danny interrupted, already heading down the street in the other direction.

“Hey!” she called after him in irritation. “This leads directly to a major artery—there’ll be military police there. You’re going deeper into this dead end of a district that way!”

“We can circle around easily enough,” Danny replied, “and more importantly, not taking straight and obvious routes is key to avoiding pursuit.”

“Not in this situation,” she retorted. “Unless you have a better reason than that…?”

“He’s right,” said Joe, nodding solemnly at Danny. “We know somebody who lives just up the road there, and we ain’t leadin’ whoever these clowns are in that direction.”

“I said better reason,” she said dryly.

“Come on.” Danny turned and resumed walking without another word. He finally seemed motivated to pick up his pace; at any rate, there was no more of his previous aimless ambling. The troops fell into formation around him, and Joe quickly pushed ahead, weapons out. Kheshiri, grumbling and cursing under her breath, finally brought up the rear.

“Sooo, Kheshiri,” Rook said rather weakly after a few yards of awkwardness. “Interesting name. Is that Calderaan?”

“Vanislaad,” Joe said shortly.

All three came to an immediate stop, swiveled in unison, and pointed their staves at the disguised succubus. She rolled her eyes.

“Cut that out,” Danny ordered. “In fact, with all respect, I’d prefer if you three refrained from firing your weapons except in the last extremity of self-defense. Those are military-grade, and people are living all around us. We have a legendary sharpshooter along; let him do what he does best.”

“For people being all around, it’s awful quiet, don’t you think?”

They swiveled again, still raising weapons, as did Joe, to aim at the man who slipped out of another alley just up ahead.

“Oh, great,” Joe muttered.

“Master,” Kheshiri said warily. “I thought you were—”

“Situation’s changed,” he interrupted. “Jack and Vannae are still scouting and trying to keep our flanks clear, but you chowderheads are about to plow right into another big concentration of the Wreath.”

“They aren’t Wreath,” she said sullenly.

“Yeah, you really latched onto the important part of that,” he snapped. “Keep quiet if you’re just gonna waste air.”

“You know this guy, I take it?” Finchley asked.

“Shook,” said Joe. “Am I gonna have to shoot you, too?”

“Another time, kid,” Shook replied. He had two wands in hand himself, both pricey-looking enchanter wands rather than standard lightning-throwers, but had them aimed at the ground, and was seemingly ignoring all the weapons still trained on him. “We’ve got mutual fish to fry right now. These robed assholes are gonna kill everybody they stumble across, which raises some real concerns about what happened to everybody living around here. Come on, we gotta backtrack, fast.”

“They won’t go that way,” Kheshiri complained. “This is like herding suicidal cats.”

“I do not give a fuck,” Shook exclaimed. “You go back if you want to live.”

“We’ll not be doing that,” Danny replied in perfect calm, heading across the street. “Do you happen to know where this alley—”

The pounding of feet on the pavement was the only warning they got.

As before, the attackers came in disturbing silence. They rushed around the corner ahead with a speed and ferocity that seemed it should have been accompanied by mad howling, but the only sounds were footsteps and the rustling of robes. This time, though, there were a lot more of them.

“Into the alley!” Finchley barked, grabbing Danny roughly by the shoulder and shoving him through the opening. Rook and Moriarty backed after them, firing into the crowd as they went. Joe and Shook both joined in, shooting with much more accuracy, but even as they created enough bodies to physically impede those still coming, none of the berserkers so much as slowed.

“How the fuck many of these guys are there?” Shook snarled, furiously casting beam after beam into the throng.

“Master, quickly!” Kheshiri called, her voice inexplicably coming from directly above them. “Into the alley, now!”

“We’ll be trapped—”

“Trust me, now!”

Shook cursed, turned, and bolted after the others through the narrow gap. Joe was the last in, moving backwards and still shooting. By the time he passed through the opening, silent cultists brandishing clubs had nearly reached it.

Abruptly, a wall of solid stone shot straight upward from the ground, sealing off the entrance.

There were no cries from beyond; the rock was too thick, apparently, to carry the sound of bodies piling against it as they must be.

“There you are,” Shook said in relief. “Where’s the other one?”

“Still scouting,” an elf in a dark suit replied; he had been pressed against the wall of the alley, forcing the others to push past him, and seemed out of breath.

“Vannae,” Joe said stiffly.

“Jenkins,” the shaman replied in a similar tone, pressing a hand to his chest.

“That’s a useful trick,” Danny commented from just up ahead. “Can you do that again? They can’t possibly keep this up long before drawing attention. I’m surprised we haven’t already heard alarm bells, given the weapons being fired off.”

“Weapons being fired mean anybody with any sense is huddling inside, not going after the cops,” Shook retorted. “There’re always a couple of heroes without sense, but they’ve gotta get through those…them. And there are a lot of ’em out there.”

“Also,” Kheshiri added from above, “the rooftops around this whole area are lousy with Thieves’ Guild enforcers, who I suspect had something to do with it.”

“Shit,” Shook hissed, quickly holstering his wands. He drew a black bandana from an inner coat pocket and began wrapping it around his lower face.

“You mentioned that before,” said Danny, looking up at the succubus and seeming unperturbed at the fact that she now had spiny wings and was clinging spiderlike to the side of the building. “What’s the Guild doing?”

“Fuck all, as usual,” a new voice said cheerily. Another elf in a suit ambled toward them from up the alley, casually twirling a stiletto in one hand.

“Not another step!” Joe snarled, aiming a wand at him.

“Oh, keep it in your pants, child,” the Jackal said dismissively. “You and I will have to continue our discussion later. Right now we face more urgent questions. Who are these people? Where did they come from? What are they doing here?”

“We’ve already killed more of ’em than the Wreath has skilled operators left on the whole continent,” said Kheshiri, finally dropping to the ground. It made the alley even more crowded, even when she pressed herself against Shook’s side. “I’m at a loss. I may be a little behind on events, but I don’t know who could not only field a surprise army, but drop it into the middle of Tiraas on a whim.”

“The dropping is easy,” Vannae panted. “Shadow-jumping. Could come from anywhere…”

“Hey, are you okay?” Shook asked him.

“This city…” The shaman shook his head, slumping against the wall. “Worst possible place for my magic. So few natural materials, so much arcane… I overextended myself—”

“Then what the hell good are you?” the Jackal demanded, arching an eyebrow. “One more idiot for us to shepherd around, now. This whole business is entirely outside my skill set. I’m used to being the one doing the hunting.”

“Hey, Joe?” called Rook. “I’m gettin’ a vibe where it might be best to just shoot all of these people.”

“Generally, that’s correct,” Joe said, “but let’s not start a firefight in this alley.”

“Also, let’s none of us waste allies, however reluctant,” Danny added. “We seem to be in a tight spot, metaphorically as well as literally.”

“I just love the way he talks,” the Jackal said cheerfully. “Back to the matter at hand, let’s be honest with ourselves. We all know someone who it wouldn’t surprise any of us to learn could pull an army out of his butt—even if this really isn’t an army. They’re jumping into nearby buildings in parties of not more than a couple dozen each. It’s a raiding party, at most.”

“Oh, is that all,” Finchley muttered.

“Assuming you’re talkin’ about who I think you are,” Joe said warily, “don’t you creeps work for him?”

“Indeed, indeed.” The Jackal grinned so widely it looked physically painful. “I’m inclined to interpret this as a very careful notice of termination—one he can deny if it turns out we’re the ones doing the terminating.”

“Fuck,” Shook growled. “How sure are you of that?”

“I wouldn’t stake my honor on it, and not just because I left that at the bottom of a river a few decades back. But let’s face it, none of us is going to be surprised if that turns out to be the case.”

“So,” Danny said slowly, “perhaps we have grounds for a more than immediate alliance.”

“Danny, no,” Joe said firmly. “You do not wanna get mixed up with these…people.”

“Oh, he’s done business with worse,” the Jackal said merrily. “But let’s walk as we chat, my new friends! I’m freshly back from a scouting run sweep, and while the bulk of our enemies are just humans hopped up on alchemicals, they’ve got good magical support. Shadow-jumpers are not only bringing them in, they’re moving them around to avoid having to cross the streets in large groups, and cleaning up after themselves; there are no bodies left on the site of your first firefight, and I’ll bet by now there are none left on the street right out there, either. It’s inconceivable they don’t have tactical scrying, which means we’re gonna be constantly surrounded until we can call in the Army.”

“Fuck this whole business,” Shook muttered.

“Amen, brother,” Rook agreed.

“Time’s on our side,” said Danny. “This is still Tiraas. They can’t keep this up long without drawing official attention, and if the Guild has people on site, they’ll intervene before too many bystanders can be hurt.”

“Yeah, the Guild’s a real charity operation, I hear,” said Finchley.

“The Guild isn’t in it for the profit,” Shook snapped. “Whatever they’re doing here, they won’t allow magic assholes to carve up the population. But the Guild doesn’t use much magic, especially in fights, and there’s no way they’ve got as many people around here as the cultists do. They won’t wade into a pitched battle unless they’ve got an advantage…”

The Jackal cleared his throat pointedly. “I wasn’t finished. Yes, the clock is ticking down, the enemy surely knows this, which is why we can’t waste time either. They’ll be forced to take us out as fast as they can, which means they’ll shortly start leveraging their other assets. Like the undead I saw them starting to summon before I came to see what was taking you clods so damn long.”

There was a beat of silence.

“Seriously?” Moriarty exclaimed at last.

“Like I said.” The Jackal had turned and was already strolling away up the alley. “Walk and talk.”


As predicted, the rozzk’shnid proved not to be a great threat. Having been summoned into a ring around the town, they effectively blockaded Last Rock, at least for a while, but that didn’t last long. Like most towns this far into the frontier territories, weapons control laws were lax at best, and rare was the household that did not own several wands and staves. Had the demons been in any way organized, they might have prevailed, but they were essentially wild animals, blind and isolated, and their discovery by citizens resulted in their dying in a swift hail of lightning. By the time the Sheriff had gathered a hunting party to clean them out, at least half the rozzk’shnid had been reduced to smoking husks.

The town was in a general state of disorder, however, having found itself surrounded by demons. The doctor was already busy treating injuries—so far, none of these were demon-inflicted, but resulted mostly from surprise-related accidents, including one electrical burn from a friendly fire incident.

By far the worst of it, though, were the katzils.

Where the ring of nearly-blind, slow-moving rozzk’shnid did little to contain or damage the town, the fast-moving, fire-breathing flying serpents were causing havoc. Lighning bolts blasted skyward nearly constantly, from almost every street, and there were several small fires where errant shots had clipped the eaves of buildings, or demons had come close enough to exhale on rooftops. The katzils as a rule moved too fast to make easy targets, and so far none had been felled by wandshots, but on the positive side, the constant barrage of thunderbolts mostly chased them away when any dived low enough to spit flame at anyone.

Unfortunately, it was also making them angry.

As the crowd assembled outside the church watched, another katzil rammed into a wall of silver light which suddenly appeared in front of it. Dazed, it reeled away, and in the next moment Vadrieny had swooped in, seizing the creature in her claws and ripping it cleanly in half. By the time its pieces fell to earth, they had crumbled away to charcoal.

Several other smears of charcoal and ash were scattered around; after the first four had been incinerated, the remaining katzils had learned to avoid the gathering which included Toby and the priestesses. That, however, had forced them to branch out ever more aggressively in taking the flying demons down; even Vadrieny wasn’t nimble enough in the air to catch them unassisted, though in a straight flight she was faster.

“Be careful,” Matriarch Ashaele snapped in the most openly irate tone any of those present had heard from her, after a stray wandshot clipped the archdemon, sending her veering off course with a screech of protest.

“S-sorry, ma’am,” the man responsible stammered, backing away from her glare.

“She’s all right,” Toby said soothingly. “Nothing we’re throwing will harm her.”

“This ain’t good,” said Mayor Cleese to himself, frowning deeply as he watched the sky. “We can win this…eventually. Longer it goes on, though, th’more fires are gonna be started. Whole town’ll be ablaze by the time we take ’em all down…”

“Rafe and Yornhaldt are helping with damage,” Toby reminded him.

“I know, son,” the Mayor said with a sigh. “A wizard an’ an alchemist, and that’s a darn sight more than nothing. But you want fire suppression, you need fae magic.”

“I think you may be underestimating Professor Rafe,” Juniper assured him with a smile.

An abrupt chorus of loud pops occurred in the street just ahead of them, causing the Awarrion guards to spin, raising sabers and flowing between the sound and their Matriarch. A whole group of people appeared out of thin air. At their head was a figure they all recognized.

“Professor Tellwyrn!” Toby exclaimed in clear relief.

She paused for only a moment to scan the sky before turning to face the cluster of diverse individuals she had just teleported in. “All right, what exactly are we dealing with?”

“There are active dimensional rifts around the town,” a dwarf in formal robes reported, closing his eyes in concentration. “Summoning circles…cloaked from immediate view.”

“Open, but inert,” added Embras Mogul, himself frowning in thought. “From the feel of it, I’d say prepared to bring more demons, but not currently doing so. That suggests the summoner’s attention is elsewhere.”

Tellwyrn shifted her attention to the nearest elf. “Sheyann?”

“Child’s play,” the Elder said calmly, her eyes drifting closed. She inhaled deeply through her nose, then fell totally still.

“While she is putting a stop to that,” Tellwyrn said, turning back to Mogul, “what have you got for a mass banishing?”

“You know very well if we could do that our lives would be a lot easier,” he said testily. “You want to banish demons, you have to catch them, individually. For lesser critters like katzils, it’s faster and easier to just kill them.”

“Fast is a factor here,” she retorted. “Easy, not so much. It’s time to send a message. Haunui!”

The man she addressed was a Tidestrider windshaman, barefoot and bare-chested, with his hair gathered into braids adorned with seashells and feathers. An intricate, sprawling tattoo depicting an octupus was inked across his back, its tentacles adorned with runes and spiraling along his right arm.

“If the winds allow it,” he intoned dourly, “the skies themselves can be called to repudiate the unclean things. I do not know the spirits here, though, nor they me.”

“I can assist you, Wavespeaker,” Sheyann said, opening her eyes. “Portals are closed, Arachne.”

“I can confirm that,” the dwarf added.

“Thank you, Mr. Wrynst,” Sheyann said dryly.

“Please refrain from bickering,” Tellwyrn said in a clipped tone. “All right, we can do this. Sheyann, Haunui, do what you can to weaken demons in the vicinity. It doesn’t have to be decisive, just put them off balance and buy the rest of us some space to cast. Father Raas, I’d like you to invoke whatever blessing you can around this immediate area without interfering with them. We need them kept away from here long enough for us to work.”

“Blessings are easy,” replied the man addressed, an older gentleman in a Universal Church parson’s frock. “Structuring it so as not to impede the fae casters is trickier. I’ll do what I can; if anything impacts either of your work, please speak up so I can correct it.”

“What do you have in mind, Professor?” Mogul asked.

“A mass banishing,” Tellwyrn said grimly. “Don’t start, Mogul; we can discuss what is and isn’t possible after we’ve done it. Ashaele, I’m very glad to see you here. May I borrow your priestesses?”

“Provided they are returned in the same condition,” the Matriarch said sardonically, directing a nod to the three cowled women now hovering beside her.

“Thank you. Caine, and all of you with wands, you’ll have to take over keeping the creatures away until Raas gets some results. Hopefully this won’t take long enough to matter. All right, I am going to set up an ambient spell lattice over the area to intermix and control magic of different schools. That is every bit as difficult as it sounds and will require my full concentration, so I need each of you to handle your individual parts. It should become intuitively apparent how to work your own spells into the whole—I’ve recently had some practice in mind magic, but it’s not my forte, so please sing out if you have any trouble understanding what the matrix calls for. Mogul, Wrynst, combine your focus and set up some demon chains for me. I need those creatures immobilized.”

“There’s a stark limit to how many of those spells we can conjure at once,” Mogul said with a frown. “Especially since we don’t have a clear line of sight to many of the katzils or any of the rozzk’shnid.”

“I will take care of that. You just have the spell templates ready to be slotted into the whole; you should be able to tell how it works once I have it running.”

“I’ve done multi-school cooperative spells before,” Wrynst said, nodding. “It should be achievable.”

“Good. I am aware that you’ll need a power boost to get as many chains as we’ll require. Mr. Saalir, that’s where you’ll come in. I won’t have the focus to spare on it, so I need you to establish a standard arcane-to-infernal energy conversion pipeline. Please wait until I have the overall matrix assembled; I need everything to be structured, and piping in energy from an unconnected system will threaten its stability.”

“Now, wait just a moment,” said a lean Westerner in blue Salyrite robes, scowling heavily. “I’m willing to endure this individual’s presence for the sake of the greater good, Professor Tellwyrn, but what you’re asking me is that I lend power to the Black Wreath!”

“Yes, I am,” she said in a tone that warned of fraying patience. “I appreciate your willingness to help me, Saalir, very much. I did not promise you that this would be easy, however, and this is what we need to do to protect this town. There’s no time for arguing.”

“There are serious matters of principle—”

Nearby, Inspector Fedora loudly cleared his throat. “Pardon me,” he said with an insouciant grin, “but maybe you should pause and think about what happened to the last Salyrite who got up into Arachne Tellwyrn’s face?”

Tellwyrn closed her eyes. “Oh, good. You’re here. Stop helping me, Fedora. Saalir, please ignore him. I am not going to blast you for refusing to help. I’m asking for your contribution.”

The Salyrite frowned at her, at Fedora, then at Mogul, then at Fedora again.

“To be clear,” he said at last, “is everyone aware that that man is a—”

“Yes!” chorused half a dozen people.

“Right,” he muttered. “Well. There’s the greater good, after all. For the time being, Professor, I’ll choose to trust you. Please don’t make me regret this.”

“I’ll do my utmost,” she assured him. “And thank you. Now, ladies.” Tellwyrn turned to the three Themynrite priestesses, nodding deeply in respect. “I don’t know your specialization, but when I last spent any time in Tar’naris, every priestess of Themynra was trained to banish demons.”

“That much has not changed,” the woman in the center of their group replied. “Our method will not send them neatly back to Hell like your Elilinist friend’s; the demons will be simply destroyed.”

“Even better,” Tellwyrn said firmly. “If you would, please, come closer, and attend to the spell matrix as I organize it. I am going to direct energy pathways along the demon chains our warlocks will be establishing, and applying dispersal systems which should enable you to strike multiple targets simultaneously.”

“Provided the demons are immobilized, that should work,” the priestess said, nodding her hooded head.

“They will be,” Tellwyrn assured her. “With three of you, I expect you’ll have adequate power without needing to draw from our shamans; if it begins to appear otherwise as I set it up, please let me know.”

“Of course.”

“All right, everyone, you know your part. I’ll make this as quick as I can.”

There was some shuffling and nervous glancing from the assembled townspeople in the silence which followed, as well as from several more of the individuals who had appeared in Tellwyrn’s mass teleport who were apparently not involved in the spell. To outside viewers, it seemed a large and complex magical working of this nature mostly involved several people standing around with their eyes closed, frowning in concentration.

After a pause, Toby sidled over to Fedora, murmuring. “What happened the last time she had an argument with a Salyrite?”

“Oh, you haven’t covered that in class, yet?” the Inspector said, smirking. “I was referring to Magnan, the last Hand of Salyrene. Also the out-of-control piece of shit who built the Enchanter’s Bane that destroyed Athan’khar. Guess who ultimately took his ass down?”

Toby sighed. “Right.”

The event, when it came, was so sudden that quite a few of the onlookers jumped in surprise, and more than a couple cursed. Tendrils of pure black limned with a thick purple glow sprang from the ground at a single point in the middle of the street, spiraling skyward; each of the katzils twirling overhead was snared and held in place midair, where they immediately began hissing and squawking in protest. More of the shadow tentacles arched toward the ground around the outskirts, apparently seizing the rozzk’shnids still surviving around the periphery.

“Hold your damn fire, you knuckleheads!” Sheriff Sanders bellowed at the men who took the opportunity to shoot at the suddenly stationary katzils. “You don’t fire wands into the middle of the most complex spell this town’s ever seen! What’s wrong with you?”

The actual banishings were not exactly simultaneous, but a cascade of sharp retorts, each accompanied by a burst of silver light, flashed through the air above the town, rather like a giant kettle of popcorn cooking. In each, a katzil exploded into nothingness, and a suddenly unmoored tendril of shadow was wrenched loose and drawn back into the point from which they spawned.

The whole thing took only seconds. Then, quite suddenly, it was all over: no spells, no demons, nothing but the evening sky. Shock at the abruptness kept the onlookers silent for only a few seconds, before the whole town erupted in cheers, and more than a few celebratory wandshots fired skyward.

Before that had a chance to escalate into a proper celebration, however, there came the pounding of hooves.

Whisper rounded the corner just up ahead, slowing to a canter as she approached the group. Astride her, Gabriel held the reins with one hand, his other wrapped around Maureen’s waist, where she was perched in front of him.

“Professor Tellwyrn!” he shouted, drawing his steed to a stop just in front of the assembled crowd. “Thank the gods.”

“That’s something I don’t often hear,” she said with a sigh. “How bad is it?”

“Where’s Iris?” Juniper demanded in alarm.

“It’s the Sleeper!” Maureen burst out frantically. “They’re in the Golden Sea! He’s got her!”

“Oh, does he,” Tellwyrn said in such a grim tone that several people immediately took a step away from her. “We will see about that.”

 

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8 – 26

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“I know you’re tired, that’s why we need to make another stop,” Principia said, grinning back at them. “It’ll just take a few minutes, but believe me, you’ll thank me tomorrow. I know a place that’ll be open this late—just gotta pick up the ground beans and a handpump press.”

“What the bloody hell are you on about now, you daffy knife-ear?” Merry groaned, trudging along behind her.

“Excuse you, that’s Sergeant Daffy Knife-Ear, private,” Principia said gaily. “It’s called coffee. We’ll be having it in the morning. Wonderful stuff! You’re gonna hate it.”

“Why do I have the feeling that’ll describe a great deal of my life in the near future?” Merry grumbled. Eyes on her boots, she barely came to a stop in time to avoid plowing into Principia from behind.

“This looks good,” Principia murmured, peering around. They had staggered to a halt on an arched footbridge crossing one of the city’s canals. Fairy lamps atop posts at either end kept it from being too dim, but it was still after midnight. The sounds of traffic from the bigger street half a block ahead were muted; it was completely dead in this neighborhood.

“Why are we stopping?” Casey asked blearily.

“Because I want to have a word with you ladies away from prying ears,” Principia replied, turning to face them. “Not suitable for the inn; the patrons there know how to mind their own business, but some things we can’t take the risk of being overheard. There are barely any people within the range of my hearing, here, and they’re all behind stone walls and asleep.”

“What’s so important?” Farah asked, looking more alert.

Princpia looked at each of them in turn, holding eye contact for a moment. “The truth is… This may seem rather cheap, since I was only just promoted, and that out of what we can all agree was a weird and twisty sequence of events. But in the days and weeks to come, girls, I expect you all to get thoroughly sick of me. We are going to work hard, and train hard.”

Merry raised a hand. “What if we were already sick of you?”

The elf ignored her. “The Legion’s normal course of training is one thing—we won’t be skimping on that, not because I am hugely a fan of it but because we can’t afford to. However, that will not be our focus. As was mentioned several times recently, this squad represents an intriguing balance of backgrounds and skill sets, and we are going to share them, ladies. Thieves’ Guild con artistry and street fighting, Shaathist wilderness skills, adventuring party tactics, Nemitite research methods and lore, Black Wreath spycraft… Anything and everything. Whatever you know that even might be useful to us, you are going to train your squadmates in. Much of this is religious in origin and directly applicable to our official mandate, but there’s more to it than that. We need skills—diverse, dangerous skills. We need to be the best, because we have a job to do over and above what Commander Rouvad wants from us.”

“What are you talking about?” Ephanie asked quietly.

Principia glanced around fleetingly, but was apparently satisfied with the lack of prying ears. She stared at her squad, her jaw set, and stated flatly, “We are going to destroy Basra Syrinx.”

There was a beat of silence.

“I’ve pointed out already that she will be coming for us,” Principia went on, “so it’s not as if we even have a choice. But that isn’t enough, ladies. I refuse to remain in the trap of defensive thinking. More than the need to fend her off, more even than the fact that that need alone will force us, eventually, to take an aggressive tack… She has to go. That woman is a monster. She’s broken in the head, has no feeling heart, and is in a position of considerable power. It cannot stand. For us, for Jenell Covrin, for everyone else that we damn well know she’s mauled even if we don’t know who they are. This needs to be done. Circumstances have decreed that we’ll be the ones to do it, so damn it, we’re going to do it well.”

“Hell yes,” Casey whispered, eyes sharp and alert now.

“We’ve got four months,” Principia stated. “After that point… Best behavior or not, Syrinx will be wanting a rematch, and she will get it. Whipping ourselves into shape will be good enough for our careers and standing generally that I expect us to be in a stronger position by then, but even if not… It doesn’t matter. What it comes down to is this: Either she is going down, or we are.”

All four of them stared right back at her, and one by one, nodded their agreement.


 

“Regardless,” Ravana said, leading the way as usual on the path back from class, “I do regret dragging you all into this. Needless to say, I fully intend to make it up to you. We are unfortunately stranded in the environs of Last Rock for the duration of the semester, but I would be delighted to host a vacation when class lets out this winter. Someplace pleasant, and relaxing! I’ve several ideas. In the meantime, perhaps the dorm can be made more comfortable by—”

“Ravana,” Maureen interrupted, her tone quiet but firm, “quit it.”

The group came to a stop, Ravana turning to regard the gnome with confusion. “I’m sorry?”

“Quit taking responsibility,” Maureen said, gazing up at her. “We don’t none of us answer to you; we make our own choices, as we did last night, an’ it’s frankly insulting the way you assume you’re the decider around here. And fer the luvva courage, quit tryin’ to buy us.”

The Duchess stared at her, mouth slightly open.

“Look,” Maureen said with a sigh. “I like you, don’t think otherwise. But you’re goin’ about this all wrong. You wanna make friends, be part o’ the group? Then be part of it. You might find that easier than bein’ in charge all the time, I bet. At the very least, it’s gotta be more relaxing. But that’s how you get people ta like you, not by showering them in shinies.”

Ravana finally shut her mouth, then shook her head ruefully. “Well, I am…appropriately chastened. It seems we’ve had this conversation once before, haven’t we?”

“An’ likely will again,” Maureen said in a more cheerful tone. “C’mon, the habits of a lifetime don’t just up an’ change. I expect you all t’let me know when I’m bein’ a dink, an’ I’ll do the same fer you. Without makin’ it personal.”

“That is, after all, what friends do,” Szith added with one of her private little smiles.

“And yay! We get to bond over cleaning rooms full of evil sludge!” Iris said with a forced, manic smile.

Ravana sighed softly. “I really do feel bad about that, though. Not that I intend to denigrate your own agency, girls, but… Well, it was my idea, wasn’t it?”

“Water under the bridge,” Iris said dismissively, waving her hand. “What I want to know is what we’re going to do if Addiwyn starts up again.”

“She never came back to the room last night,” Szith observed. “Whatever Professor Tellwyrn said or did, let us hope for the time being that it finally made an impression.”

Iris pursed her lips skeptically. “And if it didn’t? Because between you, me and the trees, I can’t see that unbalanced twit getting the point no matter what’s done to her.”

“Don’t underestimate Tellwyrn,” Ravana cautioned. “But in any case… If she resumes her campaign, we will consider at that time how to deal with it.” She paused, then smiled wryly. “With, ah…a bit more restraint, perhaps.”


 

“This is so you,” Mary mused, pacing in a circle around the frozen form of Aspen. “One cannot contest that it does the job. And all it cost was a staggering expense of power and the complete reordering of a small patch of reality.”

“It’s such a shame we don’t get the chance to catch up more often, Mary,” Tellwyrn said, deadpan. “How did you enjoy the Rail trip?”

“All right, enough!” Sheyann exclaimed. “We are going to have to work closely together to accomplish this, if indeed it can be accomplished. Let us establish up front that if we are to be successful, the personal barbs will need to be kept to an absolute minimum.”

“Quite right,” the Crow said pleasantly. “Oh, but Arachne! On the subject of personal history, I understand the young Aldarasi prince is currently enrolled in your institution.”

A ball of blue fire burst alight in Tellwyrn’s hand. “Now see here—”

Before she could get any further, Sheyann streaked across the room and slapped Mary hard across the face.

The fireball fizzled out; Tellwyrn and the Crow both stared at her in shock.

“We are not doing this,” Sheyann declared furiously. “I will not have it! Kuriwa, if you cannot manage to act your age I will treat you accordingly. Is that understood?”

The Crow blinked twice, then took a step back and bowed, first to her, and then to Tellwyrn. “You are, of course, entirely correct. Forgive me, Arachne, that was a jest in very poor taste. I assure you, I have no intention of interfering with any of your students in any way.”

“’Interfere’ is an interesting choice of word,” Tellwyrn said, twisting her lips sourly. “Elilial pulled that one on me recently. Leaves you room to be aggravatingly helpful.”

“Well,” Mary said with a placid smile, “I do have an interest by blood. And as we just established, blood, however dilute, is a connection to be respected.”

The Professor snorted. “Oh, I am not worried about Trissiny. If you want to go toe-to-toe with Avei, be my guest. Anyway, back to the matter at hand, because I do need to head off to class pretty soon. What do you think?”

Mary turned back to study Aspen, her expression growing pensive. “Tricky, as I am sure you know. I can prepare the rituals that will allow us to touch her mind. Sheyann, if you could contribute toward the general emotional contact with which our magic is good, to encourage calm and healing, that will grant me space and some flexibility to set up the far more advanced mental workings.”

“Of course,” Sheyann said, nodding.

“The hard part is going to be bridging the difference between her time frame and ours,” said Tellwyrn. “Eventually, I hope to establish a passive effect in the room that will enable us to do the work without me constantly having to ride herd on that. For the first few sessions, though, it will require a personal touch. I never automate anything until I am absolutely confident of its function.”

“Wise,” Mary said approvingly.

“And of course, the real kicker will be integrating that into your fae spells.”

“Indeed,” the Crow said, slowly rubbing her chin with a finger as she studied the immobilized dryad. “All right, I will take some time to prepare and confer with Sheyann while you attend to your students, Arachne. Before you go, however, I have some thoughts on the methodology we will need to use. To begin…”


 

Finally escaping the tense, empty conversation with her mother, Jenell practically leaped up the stairs and strode down the hall double time. Beholding the door of her room standing open, she picked up her pace even further, the long coattails of her dress uniform flying behind her, and whipped around the corner.

Her satchel was on the bed, open. Her father stood beside it, and in his hands was one of her books.

“Can I help you find something?” Jenell grated.

Colonel Covrin slowly raised his eyes, giving her a very flat stare, then hefted the old volume. He handled it gently, of course, despite his obvious displeasure with it; the Colonel was an established bibliophile who collected rare volumes himself. He often said that he would have been a Nemitite had he not gone into the Army.

“Athwart the Gods,” he said, glancing down at the book’s title. “Treatises on diverting and manipulating the attention of deities. Isn’t this volume banned, Jenell?”

“Depends on who you ask,” she shot back. His brows lowered menacingly, and she hastened to add, “It’s suppressed, not banned. The Universal Church doesn’t have the authority to outlaw books in the Empire.”

“And how did you manage to obtain a copy of a volume suppressed by the Church?”

She folded her arms, meeting his stare challengingly. “I can’t think of any reason you would need to know that.”

“Jenell,” he said quietly, “you would tell me if you were in some kind of trouble, wouldn’t you?”

She startled them both by laughing. “Are you serious, Dad? Since when do we have that kind of relationship?”

His mouth thinned to a line of pure disapproval. “What have you gotten involved in?”

“Nothing I can’t handle,” she said curtly. “I am handling it.”

“Jenell…”

“As someone keeps reminding me,” she stated, “despite how generally disappointing you may find me, Dad, I’m still a Covrin. We don’t whine about problems. We end them.” Imperiously, she held out a hand, wordlessly demanding the book’s return.

The Colonel ignored that for the moment, lowering his eyes to study its battered old cover. “What problem?”

“One,” she replied quietly, “that I am going to look in the eyes when it realizes that I’m the thing that destroyed it.”

She could see him processing, and silently willed him not to come to the correct conclusion. Colonel Covrin was anything but stupid. If he figured out what was going on, no power in the Empire would prevent him from trying to rescue her. And his trying would ruin everything.

“This problem,” he said at last, lifting his eyes to stare piercingly into hers, “isn’t Avei, is it?”

It was all she could do not to sigh in relief. “No. Gods, give me a little credit. No, Avei will be the solution. It’ll just take some work on my part, that’s all.”

He stared at her for a long, silent moment, then nodded slowly and finally handed the book back. She immediately stepped past him, gently placing it back in her satchel, and slung that over her shoulder. “I’m heading out. I need to get to the Rail station and embark for Viridill. My sponsor is keeping me on as an attendant while on a mission.”

“Jenell,” he said as she started for the door. She turned to look back at him, and found herself unsure what to make of his expression. “I’m proud of you.”

Despite herself, despite everything, Jenell couldn’t hold back a smile. “That’s… I don’t think you’ve ever said that to me before.”

“Yes, well,” he replied with an awkward shrug. “I guess it wasn’t the case before.”

And just like that, the smile evaporated from her features. “Thanks for lunch, Dad,” she said with a sigh, then turned and strode from the room before he could respond.

She practically flew down the stairs, through the hall and out of the house, fearing her mother would catch and ensnare her in another of her empty conversations. She didn’t stop until she was at the corner, two full blocks down from the Covrin residence. There, she stood, waiting until a black carriage with the red and yellow stripes of the municipal taxi service approached, and flagged it down.

“Western Rail terminal south,” she said curtly to the cabbie as she climbed into the back.

“Right away, ma’am,” he said, tipping his hat deferentially, then immediately faced forward again, palming the control runes and bringing the carriage back into motion.

She still wasn’t used to that. Jenell was long accustomed to being pretty and well-dressed, which commanded a certain kind of attention. Part of her regretted that men never flirted with her anymore, since she’d started wearing Legionnaire armor, but another part was finding the new treatment somehow sweeter. It was still an unfamiliar experience, being addressed with respect.

After glancing up to double-check that the cabbie’s eyes were on the road where they belonged, she carefully opened her satchel and studied its contents. Her father didn’t seem to have disturbed any of the books apart from the one… Even her personal reading was untouched, which she’d have more than half expected him to remark on. Ashner Foxpaw’s Exploits was so far outside both her previously established sphere of interest and the preferences of Avei’s Legions that it practically demanded comment. Perhaps he’d caught sight of the old copy of Athwart the Gods and hadn’t noticed. Luckily he’d not seen some of the other volumes she had in there.

That had been risky, and sloppy, and she could not afford to be either. Obviously her old room at home was not a secure fortress, and it was pure sentimentality that had made her assume so. She had to tighten up her game. If anybody else found the kinds of things she was studying… Gods, if Syrinx found them. She would invest in a bag of holding at the first opportunity, and never have these materials away from her person again.

Finally relaxing back into the seat, Jenell carefully pulled out the Exploits and opened it at her bookmark. There was time to get through maybe another chapter; traffic was dense at this hour.

Rather than the spot where she had left off, her eyes cut automatically to an increasingly familiar phrase, one Foxpaw was fond of using—it was the closest thing he had to a personal motto, it seemed. Jenell always found herself pausing a moment to let it sit in the forefront of her mind whenever she came across it. Due to her recent experiences, the idea resonated with her powerfully.

Not for the first time, she found herself silently mouthing the words.

“All systems are corrupt.”

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8 – 24

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Both elves leaned back, straightening, and Mary gently trailed her fingers through the puddle between them. It was hardly uncommon to find standing water on the rooftops of Tiraas; they’d not had to look hard to find a suitable location, no farther in fact than the inn in which Sheyann was staying, though both had employed a little shamanic skill to ensure their impromptu scrying mirror wasn’t disturbed by wind or rain.

More skill had been needed to ensure that they weren’t disturbed. Scrying was arcane craft; the degree of ability and power in the fae arts that enabled it was enough to bring curious people sniffing about if they were detected. Some of those people would come wearing silver gryphon badges.

“I still cannot believe you left the hook for this in the High Commander’s office,” Sheyann said at last, shaking her head. “If she learns of it, there will be trouble that may task even you. The Sisters of Avei are not the Tiraan Empire.”

“If anything, they are less skilled in the hunt,” Mary replied with an aloof little smile. “Farzida would not go so far, and anyway, she won’t find out. I am frankly surprised my little charm lasted all week; it is fragile enough to be erased by the merest touch of divine magic. Apparently she has had no need to call upon Avei directly in the last few days, but regardless, a woman of her mindset would bless her working space regularly. It will be gone before anything more can be learned from it.”

“Is there more you planned to learn?”

“No, in fact, I consider this matter now concluded, as far as my own interests are concerned.”

Sheyann gazed at her thoughtfully, but her attention was inward, not on her companion’s face. “I’ve not followed Principia’s career in any detail since hearing she gave Arachne her child—that’s a combination of events that would seize anyone’s attention—and now I am not sure whether this is fully in character for her or completely out of it.”

“The method is a well-trod path for the girl,” Mary said, her expression more serious. “It’s the motive which is new. She has ulterior motives, to be sure, and I’m positive she plans to work against or around the Sisterhood’s rules at some point, but at the same time, she is taking the matter of her enlistment seriously. And now she has the charge of four young women. I believe this will lead to better things for her than I had previously dared to hope.”

“Are you going to intervene further?” Sheyann asked. “Even from what little I saw of that woman Syrinx, I am certain she is disturbed in some manner, and very probably anth’auwa. She is also not gone in any permanent sense, nor will she forgive this humiliation. Principia has likely just bought herself more trouble later.”

Mary nodded. “But she has bought time in which to prepare for it. Syrinx had the element of surprise and a vast advantage of positioning here. I interceded only to the point of preventing her from leveraging it to the fullest; it was Principia’s own cunning that turned the tables, and it is that upon which she will have to rely in the future.”

“Ah, yes,” Sheyann said, deadpan. “Because now that she’s become interesting, you’re going to give up paying attention to her.”

The Crow smiled a sly little smile. “You know very well that I like to keep an eye on things that are interesting to me. And who knows? The girl may need another nudge in the future. By and large, though, I deem it best to leave her life in her own hands, as we always must with the young. After all, Sheyann, with this matter wrapped up, you and I have someplace to be.”

“Indeed.” Sheyann stood, Mary following suit. “We may as well take the opportunity to sleep; the Rails will not resume until morning. Last Rock is also not a regular stop; chartering a caravan is a somewhat more involved process than simply purchasing a ticket. We will need to take the first scheduled caravan to Calderaas and make arrangements from there. It is likely to be afternoon before we reach Arachne’s University.”

Mary narrowed her eyes. “I have no intention of riding that infernal contraption. If you absolutely insist on prioritizing speed over all other considerations, I will meet you in Last Rock tomorrow evening.”

“Kuriwa,” Sheyann said patiently, “you know what is at stake. What method could you possibly have of traveling so far, so fast? Manipulating the winds like that will cause storms across the continent, and even so would take your little wings a week to make the trip.”

“There are faster methods, as you know.”

Sheyann stared at her. “The place between? You would seriously rend a hole in the fabric of reality and risk traveling through a netherworld of doom, beneath the eyes of the great uncreators and the lessor horrors that prowl between the planes, just to avoid riding the Rails?”

Mary tilted her head to one side, making a thoughtful expression. After a moment, she nodded. “That’s correct, yes.”

“Nonsense,” Sheyann said flatly. “You will glamour your hair blonde and I will buy you a ticket. Honestly, Kuriwa. It has been five thousand years; I think it is about time you grew up.”

The Crow very slowly raised one eyebrow. “Oh, I see. You object to my aversions. Very well, then, Sheyann, if we are in such a hurry, why did you not simply arrange to have Arachne teleport us hither and yon? I would wager my moccasins she made the offer.”

“That is a completely different matter,” Sheyann said stiffly. “Don’t change the subject.”

She lost patience and went below in search of her bed before the Crow was done laughing.


“All right, Ruda, what’s this all about?” Gabriel demanded, coming to a stop. He was the last of them to arrive at the small landing just before the bridge to Clarke Tower. “It’s late. What was so important?”

“Late?” Ruda said, grinning mockingly. “It’s late? Gabriel Arquin, you’re a college student, you’re under the age of twenty, and it’s before midnight on a Friday. You call this late? You have officially failed at everything.”

“That’s it, I’m going to bed,” he announced, turning around.

“Wait, Gabe,” Toby urged. “The word went out from Ruda because I asked her to make some arrangements. This was my idea.”

“Yours?” Trissiny asked, raising her eyebrows. “Well… Gabriel’s question still stands, then. What is so important?”

“Guys,” Toby said, slowly panning a serious expression around his assembled classmates, “we need to talk.”

“And…what would you like to talk about?” Fross asked.

“Let me put it this way,” Ruda said, folding her arms. “Can any of you think of something you would like to talk about?”

A silence fell. Gabriel chewed his lower lip and gripped the hilt of his sword; Teal flushed and lowered her eyes, and Shaeine stepped closer to her, moving her hand so that the backs of their fingers touched. Juniper swallowed heavily and sniffed, hugging Jack closer to her chest. For once, the jackalope didn’t seem to mind the treatment. Trissiny frowned thoughtfully at them.

“I can’t, specifically,” Fross declared. “But I can talk about whatever’s on anybody’s mind!”

“I’m glad to hear that, Fross,” Toby said. “But for this… I think we need some privacy. The kind that even professors, even Tellwyrn, aren’t in a position to overhear. And that’s why you heard about this from Ruda instead of me; she has the tools we’ll need, and when I asked her, she said to leave her the arrangements.”

“And I was glad to do it,” Ruda said firmly, her mirthful expression lost in seriousness now. “Because I’ve been watching you clowns all week and I am beginning to be concerned. In fact, right now, Shiny Boots and Fross are the people I am least worried about, and that should give you a hint as to how fucked up we very nearly are.”

“Thanks!” Fross said cheerfully.

“I think,” Trissiny muttered.

“And so,” said Ruda, drawing an object from within her coat pocket and holding it up to them, “I dug into my stash. I trust you remember how these things work?”

“Whoah, wait a second,” said Gabriel, frowning at the blue-glyphed Crawl waypoint stone in her hand. “Why do you have that? Aren’t those basically all Teal’s? I mean, Melaxyna gave her the black one, she bought that one and it was her flute-playing that got us the last one…”

“And I risked my ass actually collecting that, which you seem to have somehow forgotten,” Ruda snapped.

“I gave them to Ruda to hold onto once we were out,” Teal said hurriedly. “Remember, we were gonna let her handle the loot from the Crawl, since she’s the best with figures? I just thought it made sense to add those to the pile.”

“And I hung onto them,” Ruda said, “because they are useless except to University students, since no one else has access to the Crawl, and they’re more useful to us as ways to get around down there than as currency; we’ll probably have more Crawl excursions.”

“Definitely more!” Fross proclaimed. “At least one per year!”

“Right, so we’ll sell ’em off our senior year,” Ruda continued.

“That reminds me,” Gabriel said, “I’d forgotten about that. What happened to our loot, Ruda?”

She shrugged. “Don’t worry about it. I sold off everything except the bacon, which I donated to Mrs. Oak. Over the break I had my family’s bankers open nine interest-bearing accounts. Split that many ways it wasn’t a huge haul, so I had them pursue a fairly aggressive investment strategy. Risky, but there’s lots of development going on in enchantment and industry, and last I heard we were doing quite well.”

“Why didn’t you mention this to us?” Shaeine asked.

Ruda grinned. “Because most of you wouldn’t care, Arquin would’ve yanked his out and spent it—”

“Hey!”

“—and Boots here would’ve just donated her cut to somebody.”

“In point of fact,” Trissiny began.

“No.” Glaring, Ruda thrust a finger directly under her nose. “You let me work! Dammit, woman, this ain’t the Age of Adventurers; you cannot stomp around living off the land. People own the land now; they’ll either charge rent or shoot you for trespassing. Trust me, you will need funding.”

“I’m backed by one of the biggest worldwide cults—”

“Boots, if I’ve gotta explain why it’s smart to have resources that don’t appear on the Sisterhood’s books, you truly do not understand this century.”

“Anyway,” Toby said firmly, “here we are, there’s our waystone, and I think it’s time we visited our old friends in the Crawl and had a long conversation. Don’t you?”

“What friends?” Gabriel exclaimed.

“Do you really think this is that important?” Trissiny asked.

“I think it a good idea,” Sheaine said quietly.

“Me, too,” Juniper whispered.

“We’re really not supposed to go in the Crawl except on approved class exercises,” Fross fretted. “On the other hand, campus rules aren’t the only important thing, and sneaking down there is sort of a major tradition. I mean, Chase does it at least twice a month…”

“We’re settled, then,” said Ruda, grinning. “I trust you guys remember the drill, right? Link arms and hold onto your stomachs.”

“Speaking of which,” Gabriel said, “can we pause for a moment to collect our own snacks to bring? Because I still have the taste of mushrooms and bacon on the back of my—”

“Arquin, shut up and hold my hand, y’big baby.”


“Omnu’s balls, Prin, no!” the innkeeper exclaimed the moment they entered, clutching what remained of his hair in a pantomime of fright. “Not the Legions! Have you no sense of self-preservation? Con someone less dangerous, like the Black Wreath!”

“Been there, done that,” Principia said airily. “Anyhow, Pritchett, I have no idea what you’re on about. I am a duly enlisted soldier in Avei’s mortal army.”

“In fact, she’s the sergeant!” Casey said helpfully.

Pritchett, a man in later middle age, whose retreating hair and advancing gut mirrored each other almost perfectly, gaped at them. Or specifically, at Principia. “You’re not serious,” he said finally.

“As a steak dinner,” she replied, winking. “Look, we’re gonna need one of the quiet tables, an hour or so of privacy, and a pot of Black Punshai tea. The extra-strong blend. Ooh, with cucumber sandwiches. And do you have some of those fantastic butter cookies still?”

“Cookies,” the innkeeper said, still staring at her. “I mean… Sure, yeah, they’re the most popular… Prin, are you sure you’re not in some kinda trouble? If you need a place to crash…”

“Pritch,” she said more kindly, “I’m exactly the same as I always am. Up to my pointy ears in trouble, completely in control and loving every minute of it. I remember where the tables are. Tea, sandwiches, cookies, and I’ll drop by again later so we can catch up, okay? Swell! Toodles! C’mon, ladies, this way.”

“You always take us the nicest places,” Merry grumbled as she followed Principia and the others into the farthest, dimmest corner of the inn’s common room. It was built on a sprawling, rambling plan that resulted in more corners than it seemed a building should have, most of them unnecessarily dim. It was also shabby, with peeling wallpaper, scratched and dented furniture, and cracked, flickering fairy lamps. For all that, though, it was clean.

“There’s nothing more ridiculous than a snobby guttersnipe, Lang,” Principia said cheerfully, seating herself and sliding toward the wall, making space in her selected booth for the others to pile in. With their armor, it was a cozy fit, but it did afford them a measure of privacy. Despite the late hour, the inn had multiple occupied tables, and those sitting at them were very unaccustomed to seeing Silver Legionnaires, to judge by the stares they accumulated. No one seemed hostile, though, and they were not approached.

“Okay, I think we’ve been fairly patient about this, Sarge,” Farah said pointedly, “but it has been a long and stressful day, and I really want to just sleep. What could possibly be so important at this seedy bar that we have to come do it tonight?”

“Story time!” Principia declared, folding her gauntleted hands on the table and smiling at them.

“Story…time,” Ephanie repeated slowly, as if uncertain of the meaning of the words.

“So there I was, in Last Rock,” Principia began. “For about three years. Honestly, I viewed it as being on vacation; I just sat on my ass, mostly. In theory I was keeping an eye on Professor Tellwyrn for the Guild, but hell, they don’t care what she does with her time. It’s just that it’s not smart to ignore somebody like that, y’know? The Thieves’ Guild doesn’t get along by letting the world’s most dangerous people swagger around outside their range of view. So, they needed nominal eyes on the scene, and I needed a break. Anyhow, there’s me, hanging around in bars with the students and adventurers and generally having a grand old time, when up rears the politics of the big city, which is never so far away that it can’t bite you on the ass. It started with some shit between the Black Wreath and the Imperial government, and the next thing I knew…”


“Kids!”

No sooner did they materialize on the lower floor of the Grim Visage than they were greeted with evident delight. Melaxyna leaned over the railing from the upper level, emphasizing her cleavage even more than that position required, and smiled at them with every appearance of happiness. Of course, appearances didn’t count for much with a succubus.

“Welcome, welcome!” the demon said, beaming. “Only the best for my favorite patrons! Drinks and a meal on the house, your money’s no good here.”

“Well, damn, girl, look at you!” Ruda exclaimed, grinning up at the succubus. “You work fast. How’d you get out of Level 2 so quick?”

“Ah, ah, ah,” Melaxyna chided, winking. “That is for me to know, and Arachne to tear her hair out wondering.”

“She let you out, didn’t she,” said Gabriel.

The demon’s expression didn’t alter by a hair, but her tail began lashing behind her like an agitated cat’s, hard enough to be eye-catching even though it was barely visible from that angle. “You know, Gabriel, it’s the funniest thing. I have so much reason to be grateful to you, and yet here you are, not in the room even sixty seconds and already getting under my skin. Sarriki! Our finest table for these most honored of guests.”

“You mean our least shitty table?” the naga suggested, gliding over to them bearing a tray of empty goblets. “’Finest’ isn’t really a word I hear much in this joint. Hi, kids.”

“Hello, Sarriki,” Teal said, smiling.

“Yes, yes,” said Melaxyna, “the least dank one over by the fireplace. And the best of whatever we’ve got in the back, I’ll not have a poor review of my hospitality making its way back up top.”

“The best of whatever?” Sarriki asked, raising one of the ridges that passed for her eyebrows.

“Well, of course,” said the succubus reasonably, her smile remaining in place. “Unless, of course, they seem to be trying to take advantage. Then poison them. Enjoy your stay, kids.” She turned and sashayed back toward the bar, flicking her tail at them.

“I can’t help liking her a little bit,” Gabriel mused, “and I’m not sure why.”

“She’s got an amazing figure,” Juniper pointed out.

“Nah,” he said, “it’s not that… Hard to put my finger on.”

“It probably wouldn’t be hard at all to put your finger on anything of hers,” Trissiny said sharply. “Regardless, don’t.”

“Oh, come on,” he said, offended. “Give me a little credit.”

She raised an eyebrow. “Why?”

“You two are just too precious,” Sarriki chuckled. “Right this way, little biscuits.”

“Oh, gods, she’s doing that thing,” Fross stage whispered. “I thought that was just Rowe. Does there always have to be somebody in this pub who calls us desserts?”

“Rules of the house,” Sarriki said gravely, gesturing to the large corner table to which she had just escorted them. It was, indeed, comfortably close to the hearth, spacious and slightly less splintery than most of the furniture in the Visage. “You lollipops get yourselves settled in, and I’ll be back with something for you to nosh in just a moment.”

Ruda had already plopped herself into a chair; the others followed suit more carefully as the naga slithered off.

“So,” Trissiny said, “now that we’re here, what is the big issue?”

“It was about two hundred years ago,” Ruda said, producing a bottle of rum from within her coat and setting it on the table. “Like all the events which have led to great changes in the world, it was random and hilariously stupid. So Ankhar Punaji, the prince of Puna Dara, went out and had himself a little too much to drink, which is pretty much a fuckin’ tradition—it’s how we celebrate important events, like surviving to see another sunset, or waking up without having died of alcohol poisoning in your sleep. So there’s Prince Ankhar, staggering around as sloshed as a sloop in a typhoon, and pauses to take a leak on a convenient rock by the harbor.”

She grinned, popped the cork, and had a swig of rum, pausing the wipe her mouth on the sleeve of her greatcoat before continuing. “Turns out the rock in question was a small shrine to Naphthene. Just for a bit of historical background, I should mention that shit like this is exactly why she doesn’t like people putting up shrines. They always do, anyway, and she mostly leaves ’em alone. It’s only worshiping her in an organized manner that gets your ass hammered into the ground by lightning bolts. But anyway, yeah. The prince pissed on a shrine.”

“I bet you get extra smote for that,” Gabriel said in an awed tone.

“Well, Naphthene is as capricious as the sea itself,” Ruda continued. “We always make our offerings to her when setting out on a voyage. It’s no guarantee at all of fair sailing—she just doesn’t play nice with anybody—but not doing it markedly ups your chances of getting sunk. She’s a gigantic bitch, is what I’m sayin’, and doesn’t generally mind having that pointed out. Closest thing we’ve got to a Naphthist dogma is the old saying, ‘the storm cares not.’ Still and all, pissing on a shrine? That is the kind of shit that gets a deity’s attention. Sometimes. If they’re a pretty pissy one to begin with, that is. So the goddess cursed Ankhar with the worst fate that could be inflicted on a pirate.”

“Hanging?” Trissiny said dryly.

“Poverty?” Gabriel suggested.

“A peaceful system of maritime trade enforced by sophisticated modern navies?” Fross chimed.

“Worse,” Ruda said gravely. “Sobriety.”

For a moment, there was silence around the table.

“I just…wow,” Gabriel said at last. “It’s just begging for a smartass comment, but…what can you say? The thing itself is its own punchline.”

“Pretty much, yeah,” Ruda said lightly, pausing to take another swig of rum. “Naphthene cursed Prince Ankhar and all his descendants to, and I quote, ‘drink but never be drunk.’ This is why I get a campus exemption to the ban on drinking. The Punaji royal line, despite being completely impervious to the intoxicating effects of…well, anything…suffers a compulsion to consume alcohol.”

“What happens if you don’t drink?” Trissiny asked curiously.

Ruda’s expression darkened. “One of my uncles tried that. I do not want to talk about it.” She took another drink of rum.

“Um,” Juniper said, slowly stroking Jack’s fur, “that’s a neat story and it’s interesting to finally know why you’re immune to drugs—”

“Actually that really straightens out something that had been bugging me!” Fross exclaimed. “If it’s a divine curse, that explains why it didn’t work as well on infernal intoxicants! It probably saved your life when you got hopped up on hthrynxkh blood, Ruda, but didn’t manage to completely obviate the effects like it does everything else. Fascinating!”

“Yes, but my point was,” Juniper said patiently, “why are you telling us this now?”


“Because, as I said, it is story time,” Principia said in response to Farah’s question. The others were silent in the aftermath of her tale, not reaching for the tea or sandwiches which had been delivered while the elf spoke. Principia folded her arms on the table, pushing her teacup away, and leaned forward to stare earnestly at them. “And because it’s a pretty basic rule of command not to ask anything of your troops you’re not willing to do yourself.”

“Holy shit, Locke,” Merry whispered. She looked downright nauseous. “I had no idea… I mean, I knew that guy was skeevy, even before he betrayed us, but I never figured… If I’d even imagined he’d do something like that…”

“Relax, Lang,” Principia said gently. “To look at it another way, I could’ve warned you about him if I wasn’t so tied up in worrying over my own skin. Let’s face it, none of us came out of that mess looking good. Can we just, finally, put it behind us and start over?”

Merry nodded, and gulped. “I… Yeah. I think I like the sound of that.”

“If I take your meaning,” Ephanie said slowly, “you want us to tell you our stories.”

“It’s like this,” the newly-minted sergeant said seriously. “We are not out of the woods, girls. Syrinx got slapped on the wrist, no more. We have four months in which to shape up without having to worry about her descending on us, and probably a small grace period after she’s back in which she’ll be careful not to piss off the High Commander again. But she is not gone, and in fact her last memory of us is the humiliation of being knocked down a peg while we watched. This isn’t over. She’ll be coming for us again, eventually.

“Furthermore,” she went on, her expression growing grimmer, “there’s the fact that Commander Rouvad made it plan she doesn’t like us. She also set us up for future confrontations with Syrinx by arranging for us to be witness to the Bishop’s comeuppance, which let’s face it, was completely unnecessary. That woman is too sharp to have done something like that accidentally or at random. I think, next time we have to take on Syrinx, it’ll be with the tacit approval of the High Commander. She’s setting us up to clash with her.”

“That’s completely bonkers,” Farah objected. “Why?”

“It actually makes perfect sense,” Casey said, frowning. “She can’t get rid of Syrinx without having a suitable replacement—and it might not be smart to get rid of Syrinx anyway, because then she might go over to the Church completely and become an outright enemy. One who knows the Sisterhood’s inner workings. But if she wanted to replace Syrinx…here we are. If we shape up, take her on and take her down, Rouvad has a whole roster of women who can do the Bishop’s job—at least, her political job, I dunno about being a priestess. And if we fail, well, we’re a convenient chew toy for Basra to focus on while Rouvad sets up something else.”

Ephanie sighed heavily. “I hate politics so very much.”

“I am afraid that’s just too damn bad, Avelea,” Principia said firmly. “Politics, as of right now, is what we are. We have at least one powerful enemy who will be coming back for us, and we cannot count on the support of the High Commander when her own interest lies in making us fight our own battles.”

“Captain Dijanerad has our backs,” Farah pointed out. “I mean, Locke, the fact is your little tirade against Syrinx ended on a big fat gendered insult. Rouvad didn’t mention that at all, which I’m pretty sure means she didn’t know about it. Which means Dijanerad didn’t tell her.”

“And that’s something to consider,” Principia said nodding. “But we’ve been over the fact that Shahdi Dijanerad is a good soldier and not much of a political operative at all. No, ladies, what we have to rely on is each other. And right now, we are a big bundle of unknown elements to one another. I love my privacy as much as the next gal, but that’s not going to work. There are too many unasked questions, here, and not enough trust.”

She leaned back, dragging her stare around the group, meeting each of their eyes in turn. “So I went first. Now, we need to know just who and what we are dealing with. I’m sorry to have to put you all on the spot like this, but I’m doing it because I have to. As of this moment, we are family. We succeed together, or we all fail, and the consequences of failure for each of us are likely to be far worse than a damaged military career. You all know that, right?”

“Commander Rouvad pretty much told us that straight out,” Merry said in a hollow tone.

“Yeah,” Principia said grimly, nodding. “So we are not going into one more day without knowing who we’re fighting beside. Who’s next?”


“It’s not even that I think it’s urgent, or that anybody’s in danger,” Ruda said, pouring rum into her teacup while the others stared disconsolately at the steaming pot of mushroom stew now in the middle of the table, “but it’s been a week of watching most of you lot moping and sulking and fidgeting and generally acting off-kilter, and dammit, I’m getting worried. I’m not the only one, either,” she added, nodding at Toby. “Look, guys, I respect your privacy and all, but we’re family, here. There is clearly some unresolved business from the battle this spring weighing on several of us. I know this is hard, but we have got to deal with it. Keepin’ it to yourself isn’t going to help you at all, whatever’s troubling you. Fuck it, I love you guys. We’re all in this together. Let’s deal with it together. Okay?”

Juniper sniffled, tears beading in her eyes, but she was smiling at Ruda as she did so. Toby smiled, too; Trissiny looked thoughtful. Teal was twisting her hands in her lap, stopping only when Shaeine reached over to take one of them in her own.

“Well,” Gabriel said after a moment’s silence, “this is not something I would’ve expected or thought to try, but when you put it that way… Yeah, Ruda, I think you’re right. So, I guess I’ll go first.”

He leaned to one side, drawing the black sword from its sheath, then pushed aside his still-empty bowl and set the elven saber on the table in front of him.

“Everyone, this is Ariel.”

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8 – 17

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The sun had not yet risen, but Squad Thirteen was getting ready for their day in the near darkness, only a single tiny fairly lamp with about the output of a candle illuminating their barrack. The Legion did not encourage luxury or indulgence of any kind on principle. There were brighter lights in the building, but no one wanted to risk the conversations that would result from the window being lit up. At the very least, it wouldn’t improve their already-strained relationship with the other squads of their cohort, and there was always the possibility of more official disapproval coming down.

Early mornings were quiet affairs. Aside from the tension hanging over all their lives, none of the five were really on joking-around terms with each other, excepting Farah and Casey, and even they seemed responsive to the terse atmosphere of the squad. Evenings were more relaxed, but it had already become their custom to wake up and suit up in efficient quiet; any conversation could generally wait until breakfast in the mess hall. Everyone was awake, dressed and in the process of buckling on armor when the door suddenly opened.

They swiveled in unison to stare, Casey having to catch her half-buckled breastplate as it tried to slide off, then leapt to attention as Captain Dijanerad stepped inside and pulled the door shut behind her. She paused, glanced around, and thumbed the switch that ignited the overhead fairy lamp before speaking.

“At ease.”

They relaxed, relatively, blinking in the sudden light.

“Morning, Captain,” Principia said warily. “To what do we owe the pleasure?”

“Orders, ladies.” Dijanerad’s tone was flat and her expression grim. “Today I took the precaution of getting early access to duty assignments, and I’m giving you advance notice. We have unconfirmed reports of women being abducted by Shaathist fanatics in Tiraan Province, west of the capital. Squad Thirteen is being sent to investigate.”

There was absolute silence. The fairy lamp overhead flickered slightly.

“Captain,” Ephanie said finally, “permission to speak freely?”

Dijanerad’s expression turned wry. “Granted, private.”

“That,” Ephanie said, “is a completely idiotic paranoid fantasy that doesn’t even make an effort to be realistic. No Shaathist sect has practiced wife-stealing in five hundred years, and if one were to begin doing some such backward thing, it would be in some remote province far from Imperial supervision, not a stone’s throw from the capital with both Imperial and Avenist forces absolutely everywhere. On that note, if this were going on, somehow, the Empire would have the culprits in chains almost the minute it occurred. And if we’re to stretch our credulity well past the breaking point and assume something like this even could be happening, despite all of the above, this assignment would be given to experienced wilderness scouts, not an understaffed neophyte squad without even a sergeant and no field experience. This is at best a ploy to make us waste a day stomping around the woods, and at worst, some kind of trap.”

“Are you about done, Avelea?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

Dijanerad nodded. “On paper, ladies, this cohort is on active duty, experimental mission parameters or no. The practical facts of our situation are that squad assignments come down from well above my own head. I am, until we are cycled out to a real assignment, basically an administrative convenience, much as it irks me to acknowledge that. You are none of you to repeat this, but Avelea is correct. This is pure nonsense with a transparent ulterior motive, and it’s beyond my power to put a stop to it as it stands. I will be working on that, and I frankly do not expect this ‘threat’ to stand up to even a cursory analysis by Field Command, but unfortunately, by the time this is done, you will already be outside the city and beyond reach of easy recall.”

“Captain,” Merry said cautiously, “are you… That is, isn’t it obvious by now that our squad is being targeted for persecution? And considering by whom, is this really tolerable? I mean, can’t someone…” She trailed off helplessly.

The captain sighed. “Ladies, the alleged purpose of your activities here is to gain proficiency in the world of politics. Here’s a free lesson in that very thing: do not voice accusations like that unless you can first furnish proof, and second, defend that proof all the way through the process of a court martial. Making such statements about any superior officer, or any ranking member of the Sisters of Avei, would have swift and severe consequences.”

Merry twisted her mouth bitterly, clenching her fists at her sides.

“In any case,” Dijanerad went on, “I am here for a reason. As you know, duty assignments are handed out over breakfast, with details usually given at that time. I have reason to expect that you are to be sent out under light mobility protocols.”

Principia narrowed her eyes; the others widened theirs in horror. Light mobility protocols were customarily applied to scouts and other soldiers for whom speed trumped all other considerations. It meant they would carry short swords only, with no lances or shields, wear leather rather than metal armor and carry no provisions other than canteens of water.

“I am sending you out early,” Captain Dijanerad said grimly, “before you have a chance to hear of this. You are to depart before breakfast, and first report to the south gate, where you will be issued your detailed marching orders, as well as provisions and equipment for this assignment. That is at my order, and there will be no question of you facing responsibility for this deviation from your mission parameters.”

“Thank you, ma’am,” Farah said feelingly.

“Can we request additional personnel?” Merry asked sardonically. “There’s a certain Private Covrin who I think could benefit from a long walk in the woods.” She glanced at Casey. “That’s not meant to be an ironic statement. She actually could benefit.” Casey looked away.

Dijanerad stared at Merry for a moment, then glanced around at the squad. Then, oddly, she stepped over to the narrow window near the door and glanced out at the parade ground beyond. Dawn was only just lightening the eastern sky; it was dimly gray outside, with no sunlight having reached over the walls of the temple complex yet. Apparently satisfied with what she saw, the captain turned to face them again, folding her hands behind her back.

“What I am about to tell you is never to be repeated outside this room, nor to anyone other than yourselves. Is that clear?” She waited for a round of verbal assent before continuing. “I received forewarning of your assignment today from Jenell Covrin, who appeared at my door with the paperwork. I told you before that I intercepted Private Covrin carrying your court-martial orders when you failed to report for duty at the Guild ambush. The truth is that she brought word straight to me, instead of taking the papers directly to be filed as she was ordered. And Locke, when Covrin escorted you to that out-of-the-way interrogation room in the temple sublevel, her very next action was to find and notify me, which is the only reason you were down there as brief a time as you were.”

She paused, watching their startled expressions with a raised eyebrow.

“Politics is a lot like war, ladies. You should never make assumptions based on incomplete intelligence. Never initiate hostile action in a situation you don’t understand. Never summarily dismiss a possible ally, nor attack someone just because they are a possible enemy. You’re all fresh enough from basic to still have the Doctrines of War rattling around in the front of your skulls. Remember: the only battle truly won is a battle avoided.”

The captain drew in a deep breath, and let it out as a sigh. “Among the equipment I have requisitioned for you are arcane beacons keyed to a scrying array which I have in my possession. Their range should be sufficient to cover the whole province—much farther than you will get on foot in the course of one day. With those, as soon as I have gotten this foolishness struck down as it deserves, I’ll be able to send scouts out to retrieve you. Until that time, I have to handle this very carefully. That we all consider this assignment a waste of time is irrelevant; until someone sufficiently high in the chain of command does, we’re all bound by it. In the absence of solid evidence that this will place you in some kind of danger, I have no prerogative to order you to disregard the assignment. I’m giving you the best advantages I can. Beyond that, you’ll have to trust yourselves.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Principia said quietly.

Dijanerad nodded, turning to grasp the doorknob. “I want you ready and at the south gate in five minutes, ladies, before somebody else can intercept you with any orders that will tie your or my hands. Goddess watch over you.”

With that, she opened the door and departed.


 

“This sounds like more than a minor set of inconveniences,” Sheyann observed as the two elves strode silently through the forest. “Does not the attention of this Basra Syrinx place her in real danger?” It was an old forest, but a long-settled one, regularly traveled by humans and home to relatively few animals, with almost no underbrush. Thanks to the Imperial foresters, the woods surrounding the capital more closely resembled parks than their wilder cousins in which elves made their groves.

Many of Sheyann’s kin and colleagues pointed to places such as this as evidence that humans could not be trusted, that they destroyed everything in their environs. In truth, she could not see this forest as damaged, but…changed. Environments inevitably reached a rhythm with their occupants, and this one reflected the power and dominance of humanity. They could reach an equilibrium with their surroundings, but only on their own terms. It both gave her hope, and made her even more fearful of them.

“If it were a simple contest between the two, I would feel no need to take an interest,” Kuriwa replied with a faint smile. “I don’t believe Syrinx truly comprehends what she is tangling with.”

“You sound almost admiring of the girl’s capabilities.”

“Principia has devoted her life to an ethically barren pursuit of frivolity,” the Crow said equably, “but it cannot be denied that at that pursuit, she is one of the best alive. No, the issue is not the contest between the two, but all the things connected to it. They each have strings tied to them which drag multiple influences into conflict. If anything, Principia is hampered by her need to accommodate her new responsibilities.”

“So,” Sheyann mused, “you wish to see whether responsibility will win out over the easy victory.”

“There is that,” Kuriwa conceded, “but when I spoke of strings, I referred to much more.” She frowned silently at the green depths ahead of them. The sun was only just above the horizon to the east, still partially hidden behind the hills which surrounded the River Tira’s deep canyon. The two elves, of course, had no trouble seeing their way. “Syrinx is connected to Antonio Darling, and to the Archpope Justinian’s ambitions, both of which concern me directly. Those connections involve other Bishops and their respective cults; Darling brings with him his eldei alai’shi, not to mention the tauhanwe he has gathered to his service. Or those working directly for Justinian, and the fraught relationships between all those. Then, Principia is linked to Eserion, and now to Avei, as well as to Trissiny Avelea, to Arachne, and to a few very interesting young women with whom she has been sorted into a squad. Aside from my personal interest in her, any manner in which she resolves her present difficulties will pluck strings whose vibrations I am likely to feel directly.”

“What a complex existence you lead,” Sheyann remarked.

Kuriwa shook her head. “I have been noticing something of late. Increasingly, in the last few months, matters which will affect the course of the entire world seem to hinge upon the actions of a relatively few individuals, clustered on this continent.”

“That certainly follows precedent. The Elder Gods ruled from here; the Pantheon have their own first temples here. Gnomes originated in this land, and the few elves to survive the Elder War had their groves around Naiya’s wild refuge. You know well how long we have assumed the next apocalypse would take place here.”

“I try to assume as little as possible,” the Crow noted with a wry smile. “And there have been multiple apocalypses of a smaller nature since the fall of the Elder Gods. Most of them centered on this continent, in support of your point. That is precisely what caught my interest. I have seen this pattern before. A great doom is coming, and always when one does, those whose actions will tip the balance begin to cluster together. To combine, or clash. It is wise to monitor their actions.”

Sheyann frowned deeply. “Hm. Trissiny, Juniper, Arachne… All were present and heavily involved in the events at Sarasio last year. They rattled even the most hidebound of my grove to take actions some would have thought unthinkable. And no sooner did we reach out to other elders did we find similar awakenings taking place everywhere.”

Kuriwa gave her a considering look. “I was invited to participate in some of these discussions.”

“I’m sure they were devastated that you chose not to attend.”

“I have not so chosen. I’m busy, Sheyann, as you well know. But no, I don’t intend to let these events simply wash over me. How go these negotiations?”

“With a speed that both inspires and frightens me,” Sheyann said quietly. “It is the Narisians who are the greatest hangup, of course. They, if anything, are among the most accommodating of those involved, but many of our own kind take exception to their presence. Yet if matters continue apace, we may well see concrete results within another year.”

The Crow shook her head. “So quickly. You understand what I mean? The pattern. The strings. The same few people, over and over. I advise you to pay close attention to these young ones, including Principia. Their actions in the immediate future could mean everything.”

Sheyann stopped walking, turning in a circle to study the forest around them. To her ears, the evidence of civilization was not too far distant, but it was at least out of sight. That, itself, served as a reminder that she did not know these woods.

“Where, if I may ask, are we going? I thought you wished to observe Principia in action. Have you been snooping aggressively enough among the Sisters to know where, exactly, she is being sent?”

“In fact, I have,” Kuriwa said with a grin. “However, we are not going directly there. Interested as I am in seeing how Principia fares in her challenges, I remain mindful of all these threads. What she is heading into now is something she may be hard-pressed to contend with. That is, without causing a great deal of trouble that may spread surprisingly far, through the most ephemeral of connections. I feel this is not the time for such disturbances.”

“And so, you are going to discreetly help her.”

“Discreetly, yes.”

“By not going to meet her?”

Kuriwa’s grin widened. “I’m sure you know she would not welcome my help. No, Sheyann; be ready to fade into the background. I am going to pull another string.”


 

“Well, I’ll say it if no one else will,” Merry announced, staring into the forest. Behind her, the rest of Squad Thirteen clutched their lances, grim-faced and most of them pale. Only Principia seemed unperturbed, though her eyes were narrowed in apparent concentration. “This is Syrinx upping the game, exactly as we were warned she would.”

“Could she really have moved that fast?” Farah asked uncertainly. “I mean… Could the Guild have moved that fast? It was just yesterday we spoke with Darling. It’s hard to imagine she’d have reason already to be coming down harder on us.”

“He was vague about how fast we could expect results on that front,” Casey pointed out.

“Depends, really,” Principia mused. “Something like that, involving an inquiry within the Guild… It’s all a question of how motivated the Boss is. He could have the ball rolling in hours, get something together practically overnight if he really wanted. Or he could drag it out for months.”

“Months?” Farah whimpered.

Principia grinned bitterly. “I doubt it’ll be that bad. Truthfully, I’m not sure which side he’ll come down on. Tricks doesn’t much like me… But he’s an honorable fellow, in his way, and he’ll be feeling an obligation. I made a point, before enlisting, to arrange for the Guild to dangerously screw me over. They owe me a big one, and he knows it.”

“You are a piece of work,” Merry muttered. Principia winked at her, earning a sneer in return.

The fortifications of the border town rose behind them, but they were isolated enough here to speak freely. There was already early morning traffic along the road into the city, but the Legionnaires acquired only a few curious looks and no direct attention. The bridges extending from the gates of Tiraas landed in small towns clinging to the edges of the canyon; over the centuries of the Empire’s development, they had been built up, and heavily reinforced during the Enchanter Wars. Now, the border towns were themselves practically fortresses. This one sat within eyeshot of the protected forest rolling over the region’s low hills, though the trees were kept cleared well back from the walls.

Squad Thirteen stood on the edge of the road, staring gloomily into the silent green depths.

Ephanie sighed and re-folded the sheaf of papers containing their orders, tucking it back into her belt pouch. “Well, this is the starting point we’re given. From here, it’s just a matter of tromping through the woods toward the hills until we happen across the secret Shaathist extremists who unequivocally do not exist.”

“Safely away from witnesses,” Casey said darkly. “Anybody wanna take a bet what she’s got waiting for us in there? I’m betting it’s not gonna be anything as gentle as getting us in trouble with regulations.”

“Nobody ambushes an elf in the woods,” Principia said with a sly smile. Merry rolled her eyes.

“Syrinx will have planned for that,” said Casey, heaving a sigh. “She plans for everything.”

Principia shook her head. “She plans for everything she knows about. There’s a difference.”

“None of this is getting us anywhere,” Ephanie said. “We have our orders. The Captain’s given us the best chance she could manage. From here, we will have to make do ourselves, ladies.” She turned to nod sharply at them. “Remember your training, trust in each other and be ready to make the fullest use of your skills. Forward march.”

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