Tag Archives: Vadrieny

15 – 70

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“REALLY?” the goddess roared in sheer exasperation.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The nuts you are!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then, unexpected, it all began to fade.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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15 – 69

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

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

“Are we there yet?” Natchua asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The shaman nodded once more. “Ready?”

“Ready.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So she just smiled. “I know.”

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

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

Natchua exhaled slowly, dismissing the shadow tendrils.

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

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

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

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

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

“I didn’t ask.”

“Yes, you did.”

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

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

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

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

“Complaints, now?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That was all the time they got.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“So,” she said. “You can bleed.”

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15 – 63

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Now, they had the full attention of the horde.

No longer focusing on their summoning work, the flying trios of warlocks changed formation, arranging themselves in a staggered line in the air. After the failure of their last barrage against the fae tree’s magic, most did not try that again, though a few infernal spells came screaming downward and either splashed against divine shields or were nullified by one of the powerful fae casters present before they could impact. Splotches of darkness blossomed in the sky, however, as the khelminash shadow-jumped a swarm of katzils in.

The khaladesh ground fighters topped the staircase in a line, this time advancing at a slower pace with a full shield wall raised. Their shields appeared to be mismatched patches of chitin or giant reptilian scales which left wide gaps in their coverage, but the spears protruding between them had wicked obsidian heads; that line presented as much menace as a Silver Legion phalanx.

Before the two forces could close the distance between them, Tinker Billie shot upward on a board oddly reminiscent of the khelminash’s flying discs, except bristling with glowing arcane runes, and took aim with a hefty device which resembled a cross between a very large crossbow and a very small mag cannon. The recoil when she fired it sent her spinning backward into the tree, but the projectile flew straight and true.

It was a firework, apparently one of the heavily compacted ones meant for grand impressive displays in the night sky. At least, the explosion of green sparks was large enough to blast a chunk of the upper steps away, along with every demon in the vicinity. Streaks of green fire smashed against hastily erected silver and golden shields above the defenders, while the khelminash and newly-summoned katzils were forced to hastily maneuver out of the way, many not fast enough.

Most immediately, Billie’s projectile scored a direct hit on the massive hand of Kelvreth. It was flung loose from his grip on the now-shattered stone and immediately the demon’s entire colossal arm was drawn swiftly backwards as if some force pulled him back into the huge summoning circle from which he was emerging.

The explosion made a shambles of the khaladesh line, a task completed by a volley of arrows, only a few of which impacted their irregularly-shaped shields; it seemed the Huntsmen and Rangers’ legendary skill with bows was not exaggeration, and most of those shots slipped through the narrow gaps to pierce demons behind their defenses.

Then the charge of the mortal plane’s defenders struck the beleaguered demon lines and smashed straight through.

Natchua, Xyraadi, and their friends had already vanished in a swell of shadow, the Imperial strike team likewise departing as per Trissiny’s orders. As the situation on the plaza devolved into a mass melee, Vadrieny and Yngrid swooped up and arced toward the city’s north bank, cutting fearlessly through the aerial combatants; Vadrieny had to swerve out of her way to smack into a khelminash platform in passing, as the warlocks were eager to avoid her, but she did at least knock one down. The khelminash were less impressed by Yngrid, at least until she annihilated six of them to dust with two wide swings of her scythe, shrugging off a barrage of infernal spells as if she couldn’t feel them. Then the two were descending into alleys amid the towers of the north bank at the nearest portal site, leaving the main battle behind.

Above the noise of battle, Fross could barely be heard chiming in excitement:

“I’ve been working on this since the last hellgate! You’re not hiszilisks, but you’ll do!”

What she unleashed were jagged arcs of light that struck targets and immediately sprang to another nearby, like the classic chain lightning spell which had been an adventuring mage’s standard since time immemorial. Rather than electricity, though, her streamers were ping-ponging carrier spells bringing intense cold and accompanying puffs of airborne frost. She brought down one khelminash platform due to sheer element of surprise before the others swiftly learned to avoid the bouncing beams, or repel them with bursts of fire. The katzils were another matter; finding themselves suddenly encased in ice, they plummeted into the brawl below, unable to stay aloft. Quite a few hit the ground already dead, as the sudden freezing of a creature in the process of spouting fire caused their abruptly hardened flesh to shatter outright. The khelminash spun about, firing poorly-aimed spells and utterly failing to stop Fross, who due to her size, speed, and color was practically invisible against the daylight sky and would have been nearly impossible to hit even so.

Below, the two mounted paladins were the first to plow into the enemy, hurling them further into disarray. Arjen’s sheer bulk and power trampled the khaladesh fighters effortlessly, which Trissiny capitalized on by directing him straight into anything still resembling a formation she could find on the reasoning that reducing an army to a mob was half the work of defeating it. Her glowing aura singed demons even in passing, and not a single spear penetrated her divine shield. Whisper was much less physically imposing, but faster and more nimble to compensate, and Gabriel had the advantage of a weapon with both a very long reach and horrifying destructive potential. He skirted the edges of Trissiny’s wake, scything through demon soldiers who were reduced to dust and skeletal fragments before they hit the ground.

With the demons totally out of order, the much smaller but more individually powerful ground fighters hit them with devastating force. Darling had snared another katzil and was directing it to strafe any khelminash he spotted who seemed to be trying to give orders. The jaws of spirit wolves, as it turned out, burned demon flesh almost as severely as divine magic, and Ingvar’s pack were instinctively cutting individuals out of the throng to bring them down, while the archers smoothly switched from a massed volley to picking off targets precisely.

An entire row of demons were crushed together between two walls of light, one silver and one gold; as they fell, Shaeine was already turning away from Toby as he rounded on another knot of demons, calling up another flat shield, turning it sideways and slashing into concentrations of khaladesh not unlike Gabriel and his scythe. She had to switch back to shielding herself as a spear of orange fire shot right at her out of the throng, one of the khelminash warlocks knocked from her platform having recovered enough bearing to attack. That ended seconds later with a single stab through the chest, Ruda cackling something indistinct above the din as she yanked her mithril blade out of the sorceress’s heart.

More spectral animals charged into the fray; they still didn’t last very long under so much abuse, but their constantly replenished numbers played their role in turning the tide. While Khadizroth did that from behind the front lines, Rainwood danced about closer to the action, lashing out with spells to strike down demons more directly. Even with his reflexes, he was nearly overcome at one point when he strayed too far from the main group by a squad pulled together under a khelminash warlock’s command apparently for the express purpose of putting a stop to him. The enormous fiery bulk of Meesie in her larger form shattered their would-be phalanx, buying Rainwood necessary seconds to turn on them and finish the job, with Schwartz’s help. Despite their relative positions along the Circle, it took the both of them a tense few moments of magical dueling to bring down the warlock, and even so it was finally decided by Meesie mauling her from behind while she was trying to concentrate.

“How fascinating!” Schwartz shouted over the chaos. “In groups they stick to formalized spell routines, but get one alone and cornered and she gets positively inventive!”

“Making soldiers out of casters,” Rainwood agreed, cutting down the last of his would-be assassins with a lightning bolt. “Rookie mistake.”

Behind them, Khadizroth burned a khelminash platform out of the sky with a burst of pure fae magic of an intensity that even the crafts of all three failed to counter, in response to a rather clever attempt by that group to disrupt his ongoing summoning through Circle effects. They had actually put up a conversion array that was drawing power away from his fae spells to consume their own infernal magic, which they transmuted into arcane in the middle of it, causing his last several creature summons to explosively fail. That was far too creative to have been whipped up on the fly, suggesting these were prepared to deal with powerful fae casters. It would explain the trouble Rainwood and Schwartz had had.

The theory was borne out when two more trios began doing something similar in unison, this time using the explosive arcane-fae reaction to cause painful feedback in his own aura and sharply impeding his own ability to cast. Growing in displeasure, Khadizroth lashed out at one of the platforms, failing to strike them down with his second burst of magic but alleviating the pressure as the attack forced them to break off their efforts and withdraw. In that second, though, two more had swooped in, followed by a third, and the pressure immediately began mounting. They had, he realized, identified who the most powerful caster here was, and made him a priority. That status was debatable, but Kuriwa was presently darting about conjuring thorny bushes out of the very pavement to both ensnare khaladesh in murderous vines and spray puffs of rejuvenative pollen at her allies, which probably didn’t look nearly as impressive to the warlocks as his great tree did.

“PESTS!” the dragon thundered, launching another burst of fae magic. This one fizzled entirely; he now had seven platforms full of khelminash warlocks focusing on him, their spells slowly but surely burning through his defenses.

Nearby, Branwen looked up from healing a fallen Ranger and in the next moment sprang to his side, planting herself and her divine shield between him and two of the warlock platforms. That alleviated their onslaught for a moment, but they just swung wide to cast around her, and Branwen wasn’t adept enough with divine shields to bar more than three times or so the width of her small body. One of the attacking khelminash platforms was shattered out from under them by a burst of Fross’s magic, but in the next moment the pixie swooped away to finish mopping up the katzils, apparently not realizing what was happening.

Khadizroth snarled; at his side, Vannae was similarly beleaguered by the same effect, impeding his attempts to come to his master’s aid, and no one else seemed to have notice their struggle in the midst of the chaos.

Then, in the space of one second, four sprays of three needle-thin bolts of light each lashed out, every one piercing a sorceress directly through the head. They tumbled off their platforms, his magic came roaring back with the sudden lessening of the inhibiting effect, and both Vannae and Branwen sprang in front of him. Before they could take the fight to the last two trios, though, Khadizroth plucked a seed and hurled it. It burst alive even before striking the pavement, roots surging downward while thorny vines reached up, entangling one platform and forcing the last into a desperate retreat.

Khadizroth looked to his left, in the direction from which the wandshots had come, and met Joe Jenkins’ gaze across the battle. The Kid tipped his hat to the dragon, then turned and felled a dozen oncoming khaladesh with another volley of surgical shots. He and McGraw were standing guard over Billie, who was hard at work cobbling together some arcane contraption and giggling maniacally to herself.

Not far distant from them, Toby moved smoothly between attacking demons, neither rushing nor lashing out. He was all but impervious behind a divine shield which he kept molded close to the shape of his body rather than the traditional wide bubble, and his blazing aura burned any that came too close. Being demons, this infuriated them into attacking, and he kept constantly on the move, sliding nimbly around their clumsy advances, maneuvering them into tripping each other up and blundering into attacks by nearby spirit wolves and spectral beasts, or being felled by blessed arrows. Despite his lack of offensive maneuvers, Toby was slowly but surely whittling down the demons’ numbers with his passive strategy, while taking pressure off his allies; so long as he kept himself as a primary target, those willing to attack more aggressively were easily able to take his assailants from behind.

As was demonstrated when his shield and aura suddenly and unaccountably flickered. Out of the throng of soldier demons, a khelminash sorceress appeared, one clawed hand outstretched and teeth bared in concentration as she worked some spell that interacted badly with his divine magic. Toby had only just zeroed in on this new threat when the effect vanished, and the warlocks shrieked in pain. Arcs of scarlet lightning wreathed her, and she stumbled to her knees, twitching in apparent agony.

Grip stalked forward, wearing a truly psychotic grin and holding a fist-sized device which produced the red lightning. She kept the sorceress in the grasp of its effect just long enough to step within arm’s reach before dropping it, giving the khelminash a split second of lucid relief before Grip’s brass-studded cudgel caved her face in.

Sensing another approach, Toby smoothly flowed to the side, preparing another evasive sidestep; it was not another demon coming up from behind, though, but the dragon.

“Mr. Caine,” Khadzroth said, not shouting but projecting his powerful voice through the noise nonetheless. “You are more needed back here. Their advantage is in numbers; if we can avoid taking losses, we will ultimately prevail. We need all available help to shield and heal.”

Toby cast a quick look around the supporters the dragon had gathered. Vannae seemed to have appointed himself guardian of the healers, darting back and forth to attack any demon which came through the larger scrum to strike at them, while Branwen was busily dragging wounded back into the protective aegis of the tree where she could perform emergency healing behind her own shields. Elder Shiraki paced steadily behind the lines, directing currents of fae magic which Toby could tell at a glance were empowering the archers, adding magical effects to their arrows, and further augmenting any melee fighters on whom he could gain a line of sight through the chaos. Flora, Fauna, Principia, Jenell, and Merry were all dueling khaladesh nearby without the aid of any magic of their own, and benefiting from Shiraki’s efforts whether they realized it or not. Weaver paced in an opposite pattern, occasionally crossing Shiraki’s path as he blew steadily into a flute. Toby could barely hear its thin melody over the havoc, but he knew bardsong was as potent as it was poorly understood by those outside Vesk’s cult.

They had studied this, he realized, in Professor Tellwyrn’s class, though he’d not expected to actually see it in person. These were not modern military maneuvers, but classical adventuring tactics: dedicated casters would remain behind the main fighters to heal and buff. It was, just as Khadizroth said, one of the main reasons adventurer teams tended to outlast much larger forces, even more important than their ability to individually hit harder. A smaller group would win through attrition if they just wouldn’t die. And Khadizroth was right: in such a situation, the powers of an Omnist paladin were far better suited to this than fighting on the front lines.

“Right,” he agreed, then raised his voice. “Shaeine!”

“I heard,” she called, emerging from behind one of Mary’s thorn bushes. While pacing gracefully toward him, the drow raised one hand, conjuring a wall of silver light which first rebuffed the khaladesh demon that tried to ambush her and then crushed him flat against the pavement. “A sound strategy.”

“They’re retreating!” Schwartz called. “I think we’ve got them—oh, on second thought, this is bad, isn’t it.”

In the chaotic minutes since the battle had been joined in full, the mortal defenders had utterly devastated the assembled demonic force while taking few and possibly no losses; there were too many archers, spirit wolves, enforcers, and other miscellany for an easy head count amid the chaos, but at least the majority of them were still up and fighting. In military terms that represented an astonishing victory, but was about historically normal for massed adventurers facing the kind of fodder represented by the khaladesh soldiers, who had mismatched and inadequate equipment and were themselves not any physically stronger or more resilient than the average human. It as a more impressive showing against the khelminash warlocks, who were feared even in Hell for their expertise, but the presence of such as paladins, dryads, a dragon, and Kuriwa served as a counter to even that strength, and as Schwartz had observed, khelminash were actually less dangerous while casting formalized spell sequences from formation than when allowed to exercise their creativity and skill as individuals. The platforms had fallen with surprising ease, but each one of the warlocks who survived landing had posed a significant threat to the ground fighters before finally being brought down.

Unfortunately, Schwartz had also correctly identified what this turn of the tides heralded.

The surviving khaladesh soldiers were, indeed, retreating toward the steps down to the lower plaza, which was still hidden from view by the angle. Some of them were still being cut down as they fled—Ruda and Grip both chased after fleeing demons before being reined in by Juniper and Darling, respectively—and Trissiny and Gabriel continued to gallop through their numbers, but most of the defenders took the opportunity to catch their breath, even at the cost of letting the demons regroup. The withdrawal of the khelminash, however, was obviously not just to reorganize. They had fallen back into a rotating formation above their plaza, again channeling their energies at whatever lay in its center.

Kuriwa lit close to the support casters, immediately resuming her elven form. “They are casting a summoning, not a true gate, and for a creature like Kelvreth, their help will be needed to pull him physically through. Billie’s explosive interrupted that effort; if we can stop them now, we may be able to prevent him reaching this plane.”

Khadizroth swept a quick glance around the skyline; already, several of the pillars of fire in each direction had gone dark, and he happened to catch the sudden snuffing of another on the north bank. So the teams Trissiny had sent were still at their work. The strategy was working: so long as demons kept coming here to die, eventually those three groups would cut off all their entry points.

But that left them needing to survive Kelvreth.

“I am less use than I might be, Mary,” he stated, fixing her with a flat stare. “You could remedy that.”

Her expression, as usual, betrayed nothing. “And in this circumstance, I would. It would be an action requiring some long minutes of focused work. Do you want to risk it?”

Khadizroth glanced again toward the stairs, and the khelminash now circling the lower plaza, and at that moment Trissiny’s voice rang out.

“Baerzurgs! Heavy hitters to the fore, casters retreat!”

“Let us revisit this after dealing with the matter at hand,” he said, but she was already taking flight again as he paced forward and various adventurers repositioned themselves at the paladin’s order.

An entire line of baerzurgs topped the steps, thirteen forming a single rank. Worse, they held that formation; clearly, these had been trained in military tactics like the khaladesh. Baerzurgs were all but invulnerable to most attacks save magic, and most commonly fought by charging wildly in. It was rare that they would learn and practice actual maneuvers. The mortal plane had not seen the like since the Hellwars, and then, forces like this had shattered even the most resolute lines of the Pantheon’s servants.

This time, though, the formation only lasted a second after heaving into view, because that was how long it took Arjen to lunge forward, pivot a hundred and eighty degrees on his front hooves, and kick the baerzurg in the line’s center with his powerful hindquarters—thus revealing why the Hands of Avei rode a barrel-chested draft horse instead of a more traditional charger. Even a normal horse could inflict devastating damage with a kick like that; Arjen’s sent the “invulnerable” demon hurtling a good fifteen feet with its armored chest caved in.

The baerzurgs’ discipline didn’t extend to holding formation in the face of that, as both flanking the victim proved by breaking ranks to turn and attack the mounted paladin. Trissiny’s blazing aura already had them smoking; between Arjen’s slashing hooves and her striking with both sword and shield, they held their own, but fending off two hulking demons of that size kept them fully occupied. Gabriel felled another, the wicked blade of his scythe sinking into a baerzurg’s chest without resistance and causing the demon to crumple, but while he was as physically sturdy as they, Whisper’s instinct was to evade rather than stand and she darted away to escape the counterattack of two more of its companions. Meesie struck another baerzurg in a flying tackle that sent them both tumbling down the stairs, and two more were felled by punches from Juniper and Aspen.

Even with these losses, the line kept coming. Five baerzurgs had fallen, two were ineptly chasing Whisper, and Trissiny and Arjen were still dealing with another. As impressive as that was against such infamously durable demons, it left five to charge at the far more vulnerable defenders who had retreated behind the patchy rampart of fae thornbushes to the outskirts of Khadizroth’s tree.

“Shamans, with me!” the dragon ordered, raising his hands.

Kuriwa, as usual, ignored him; she landed behind the demons and struck one in the back with a spear of green light. Shiraki, Schwartz, Rainwood, and Vannae all joined the green dragon, however, in pelting the oncoming demons with a variety of spells that brought their advance to a staggering halt. The assembled archers fired a volley as well, and while their arrows did little against that armor, the fae blessings Shiraki had been casting helped weaken them. In fact, Ingvar, whether by skill or accident, sank a shaft into one baerzurg’s eye, causing it to topple.

“Finish them quickly!” Khadizroth barked. Trissiny had already dealt with the last of her foes and was charging to aid Gabriel, who was finding it hard to both evade the demons’ claws and bring his slightly awkward weapon back into play on horseback. That was, of course, a downside of wielding a scythe, no matter how deadly it might be: farm implements were just not designed for such work. “They are stalling us now; those will not be the last of their forces. Make haste!”

Toby cupped his hands around his mouth, raising his head to the sky. “FROSS! What’s happening down there?”

Seconds later, the pixie came zipping out of the sky; while everything else was going on, she had succeeded in wiping out the summoned katzils. “That summoning circle they’ve got is fully activated and seems to be an open rift now! I’m no infernomancer but if I remember my planar mechanics right that’s not gonna fade if we just erase some lines, it’s gonna have to be actively disrupted. What’s left of the warlocks are casting something directly into it!”

“Kelvreth will require help to pass through,” Khadizroth declared for the benefit of those who had not heard Kuriwa earlier. “Even if we fail to disrupt the circle in time, we can at least slow his arrival by stopping them.”

“He will have help from the other side,” Shiraki pointed out.

“Yes, but every bit helps,” Khadizroth said tersely. “Joseph?”

“Way ahead a’ you,” Joe replied, already taking aim with his wand.

In the next moment he winced, having fired a barrage of precise beams which swerved off course a few yards from any of their targets. “Rats. I think they’re onto me. Y’all, if precision attacks won’t work, we need widespread firepower.”

“I believe he’s playin’ your song, Billie,” said McGraw, who was still standing guard over the gnome and her ongoing project.

“Oi, ye don’t rush genius,” she grunted, pausing in her work to pick up the projectile weapon she had used previously. The device Billie was building resembled a mag cannon, though aimed upward at an angle rather than directly at its target, and she had physically bolted its legs into the pavement. She hastily produced another long tube from within one of her pouches of holding, slotted it into the quasi-crossbow, and tossed the whole thing to McGraw. “’ere, go nuts.”

He had to drop his staff to catch it, but chuckled while raising it to his shoulder and sighting along the weapon’s length. “An’ here I was just thinkin’ it ain’t fair how the rest of us never get to play with your toys.”

The rocket screamed when he pulled the trigger, and McGraw was physically bowled over amid a shower of sparks, coughing at the smoke. Branwen rushed to his side, but everyone else watched the missile as it streaked out over the plaza.

The old wizard’s aim had been true; it detonated right in the middle of the khelminash formation in a colossal shower of blue and gold sparks that was clearly not meant to go off that close to the ground. Every surviving window facing the lower plaza was shattered, and four of the remaining khelminash platforms were blasted right out of the sky. Of the rest, only two managed to retreat unscathed, while one careened into the face of a building and two more went swerving off course, losing several of their riders in the process.

“Fallowstone, how much danger will we be in from whatever you are doing?” Khadizroth demanded.

“Mostly none, long as ye don’t stick yer faces right in the barrel,” she grunted. “Fairies may wanna hang back a wee bit. I’m almost there!”

“Is that a—where did you get that?” Branwen demanded, watching Billie snap an Izarite shatterstone into some kind of glass canister and insert it into the nozzle of her improvised artillery. “Where do people keep getting those?!”

“Take it up with ‘is Graceness over there,” the gnome said cheerfully.

Darling raised his hands hands as Branwen rounded on him. “Hey, it’s not like I put things on the black market! I’m just a middleman, here.”

Trissiny and Gabriel came cantering up to them before Branwen could say anything else.

“We need to press forward,” the Hand of Avei stated, her voice projecting across the crowd. “They failed in their assault because their formation was broken and they were felled individually. We cannot make the same mistake! This group is smaller, but we have enough forces to wipe them out so long as we move in unison. And quickly!”

“Agreed, there is no more time to delay,” Khadizroth added. “We’re with you, General Avelea.”

Then Kelvreth’s hand re-emerged—two, this time. Both gigantic, skeletal claws rose upward and then swept down to both sides as the enormous demon grabbed the ground itself for purchase, in a pose obviously meant to help lever himself up out of the portal.

“Too late,” Joe said fatalistically.

“Oh, we’re not too late,” Billie retorted with vicious satisfaction, yanking a lever on her device. “He is!”

It had already begun to rattle and smoke, but also to produce a fierce golden glow through every crack in its improvised metal housing. Everyone nearby instinctively retreated from the cobbled-together cannon, with the exception of Billie herself. They had barely two seconds to do so. With a THUMP that sent cracks through the pavement for two yards in all directions and cast a puff of glittering golden smoke across the group, it finally fired.

What emerged from the barrel resembled a sunrise. Light blazed forth with an intensity that blinded most of them. The missile arced a disappointing short distance after all that build-up, but Billie had calibrated her weapon well, and its course brought it down right into the center of the circle from which Kelvreth of the Eyes was being summoned. Around it traveled a scintillating corona that incinerated every remaining demon, living or dead, still in the vicinity.

But then, before it struck the ground, the projectile suddenly halted in midair. Its stunning luminosity began to dim, enabling the watchers to belatedly see what had happened; what had begun as a skull-sized projectile was now a seething ball of light almost as big as a carriage, and it was now held in the air within the clawed grip of Kelvreth’s hand.

Then he clenched his fingers, and with a shockwave of thunder that shoved all of them bodily backward and uprooted several of Kuriwa’s magic bushes, the Light was snuffed out. In its wake, the demon general spoke.

“ENOUGH.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“My name is Xyraadi! I know—”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A pixie?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Flying discs?” Jonathan exclaimed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shadows gathered and whisked her away.

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

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

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

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

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

Unfortunately.

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

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

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

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

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

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

In seconds, the entire force was decimated.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She sketched a mocking salute and shadow-jumped out.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No!” Natchua and Jonathan shouted in unison.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You said it,” he replied sympathetically.

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

“Why do people keep saying that to me?”

“People have met you,” Grip replied.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“KEL!”

“VRETH!”

“KEL!”

“VRETH!”

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

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

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

“KEL!”

“VRETH!”

“KEL!”

“VRETH!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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15 – 30

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Dawn came early in the mountains. They had set out from the old Order of the Light station at the first graying of the sky, and so arrived in the ancient, battle-scarred courtyard below the Great Tree just as the first orange light was peeking between the crags to the east.

The group proceeded in silent single file across the pitted ground until they reached a point as near the center of the space as could be reckoned at a glance. They were unaccompanied by animal companions this time, Sniff and F’thaan being back at the camp under Principia’s supervision. Without speaking, they moved smoothly into place, arranging themselves in a circle facing one another. There was silence save for the soft whisper of wind through the Tree’s branches for a moment, and then Gabriel drew in a deep breath, clearly to steady himself.

“Okay,” he said, his voice not quite nervous but just short of certainty. “This was my idea, after all, so I guess I’ll take point in guiding it…but that shouldn’t be a factor for much longer. We’re all equals in this circle, that’s the point. So… We know why we’re here. This started with Teal, but I want to reiterate that while I do hope this helps her…this is for all of us. We’ve all got our… That is, this is about the group.” He hesitated for two beats, unconsciously rubbing his palms against his coat. “This is a Vidian ceremony, or at least, is built on one. Truth is, only one of us here is Vidian and I’m, like, only technically. I’ve been getting the impression Vidius wants me as specifically a kind of anti-priest, which is…neither here nor there. Point is, this is not a ceremony for any one faith. It’s something that occurred to me because it has specific relevance to the issues that have been raised before us. This, I believe, is something we can all benefit from, so long as we make it our own.”

He gained poise as he spoke, straightening his spine and ceasing to hesitate and second-guess his words. “The Doctrine of Masks, like all great religious dogmas, is a very specific way of interpreting a universal observation about life. None of us here observe the Doctrine and several of you might not even be aware of it. We all wear masks, in a way, and we’re here to confront that fact and even make it work for us, but not to embrace Vidian practice exactly. We have all spent the night in contemplation, as I asked. By now, I’m confident that all of you have found the answers I asked you to bring forward. I have, for my part. If you’re less confident about whatever you’ve come up with, I’ll tell you this up front: it is enough. All of you are plenty smart in the ways that matter, and all of us know each other well enough by now to make of this what it needs to be. We will be borrowing from many sources of both power and wisdom, and so we’ll begin by making them ours. It’s dawn, a time of transition, a boundary between two states. To begin, we will define this space, for the duration we need it, as ours. Each of you has something to invoke, to set our ritual space apart. Before the sun rises further, I will begin.”

Gabriel took one step backward, drawing his gnarled black wand from within his coat; in his hand it extended to its full length, the scythe’s blade gleaming sullenly in the dim light, while its knotted haft seemed almost to be cast from shadow. He raised the weapon in both hands.

“By the blade of death itself, I cleave this space from the world. This spot, for as long as we need it, is ours.”

He swept the scythe in a wide arc through the middle of the circle, a mostly symbolic gesture that had an immediate reflection in the physical world. A line of shadow ripped across the ground around the eight students, forming into a ring enclosing them together. It was almost invisible upon the ground, but where the dim light cast shadows upon the ground from the many rocks and roots protruding, they changed angle, as though the light inside that circle had been rotated a few degrees.

Gabriel stepped silently back into line, and there was a momentary pause.

Then Toby stepped forward, hands folded at his waist.

“I ask Omnu’s light upon this place. By the shift in shadow, of Vidius’s own rank in the Pantheon, I will the light only to heal and to calm. None here are to be burned, or judged.”

Golden light descended upon them. Though the sun was only just coming up in the east, scintillating beams of sunlight streamed down from within the leaves of the Great Tree high above. Toby lifted his face to smile up at them, then stepped back into place.

“Uh, scuze me for speaking out of turn here,” Ruda said, sounding uncharacteristically nervous herself, “but is that supposed to happen? I’d like to think I’ve gotten a pretty good handle on paladin shit by now and I had zero idea you two could do that.”

“Actually, that was…a surprise,” Toby admitted.

“Yeah, I was thinking this was gonna be just a ceremonial invocation,” Gabriel agreed. “This…I dunno. It’s not what I would’ve expected, but it feels right.”

“This is an extraordinarily sacred place,” Shaeine said quietly, “and we are each connected to considerable powers through the web of magic. Surprises should not, perhaps, be surprising.”

“Trust your feelings,” Juniper added in just as soft a tone. “We’re safe here. You’ll know if something is wrong. And in fact, let that be my invocation.” She took a step forward into the circle, raising one hand toward the light beaming down from the tree. “Though severed from Naiya by my own crimes, I am still a daughter of nature, and a being animated by fae magic. The magic of emotion, and intuition. I call upon the trust and wisdom within each of us, within this place, and within reality itself. Let us know balance in what we do here.”

Small flowers popped up right out of the rocky ground, in a neat ring around their feet just inside the subtle rim of shadow.

Fross fluttered forward as she stepped back. “I don’t…really know what I am. Pixies don’t work the way I do. How I seem to convert fae magic to arcane just by existing, that’s…that’s never been explained to my satisfaction. But right now, I’m seeing a parallel to this situation here, so that is the invocation I want to offer you all. Building on Juniper’s blessing, I call on whatever it is that animates the arcane to add its gifts. From whatever peace of mind we’re given, let’s also draw comprehension and reason, to apply to whatever happens. I invoke my gift of arcane intellect on behalf of my friends!”

As she returned to her position, a faint tracery of blue lines shimmered into being across the pitted stone, forming a geometric pattern of intricate mathematical perfection linking them all together.

Ruda stepped forward next, drawing in a steadying breath of her own. “Okay, well, I’m out of my fucking element here. Magic I understand as something predictable and useful, but there’s some serious spookery going on that I do not get. But it doesn’t feel wrong. It comes from you guys, and hell, I trust you. Hardly anyone else in the world, but if my life and my soul are in the hands of the people here, I’m fine with it. So that’s what I bring to this apparently sacred space we’re apparently carving out.” She drew her sword, the mithril blade hissing gently in the quiet, and strode all the way forward till she could rest it point down in the very center of the circle. “By the unfair, unreasoning, bullshit wrath of the sea, by the blade that cuts magic itself, I claim this spot as ours. None are welcome to interfere.”

She withdrew her hand, and the rapier remained there, perfectly balanced on its tip, even as she backed slowly away to resume her position.

“Did you…know it was going to do that?” Trissiny asked.

“Hell, I know nothing,” Ruda muttered. “It felt right, is all. So, there we are.”

Trissiny nodded, then took a step forward into the circle. “None of the provinces of the particular gods I serve seem relevant to us here, but…there is a universal virtue that’s necessary to everything both Avei and Eserion seek to accomplish. Necessary to everyone, really. I know what we’re doing will involve looking within ourselves, finding and confronting some realities, and having done a bit of that I can tell you it’s harder and more frightening than anything I’ve faced that put my life in physical danger. So, that is what I wish for us. What I invoke, and share with all of you, my friends. Whatever comes next, while we are together in this space, I wish you courage.”

By that point they were accustomed to the occasional sight of the golden eagle wings that flared into being behind her, but this time there were eight pairs, flanking each of the. Only for a startled moment, and then they faded. But gold continued to drift down, accompanying Omnu’s sunbeams; shimmering, intangible feathers of light that drifted like falling leaves from the tree, fading out of being as they touched the ground.

Gabriel made an aborted noise in his throat and pressed his lips together firmly.

“Excuse me,” Trissiny said incredulously, “are you laughing?”

“I’m sorry!” he protested. “It’s just… Fross, with giant golden eagle wings. That image is gonna be burned into my memory forever.”

“Okay, I’m actually sort of sorry I didn’t get to see that,” Fross agreed.

Trissiny heaved an annoyed sigh, but by the time it had finished even she was forced to smile.

Shaeine glided forward a step, folding her hands in the same position Toby had. “My goddess, I think, is specifically relevant here, more so than I am personally. My House trains diplomats, but I think that between us… We are past the point of needing negotiation. I know and trust each of you like…” She hesitated, then swallowed heavily. “…like family. With Themynra’s permission, and by her grace, I ask the gift of judgment, to build upon what Juniper and Fross have already invoked. Whatever we hear, whatever we learn and discover, let us think carefully and seek to understand before reacting.”

Silver mist thickened out of the air, drifting on the ground around them—specifically, concentrated around the tiny flowers, and glittering softly above the blue geometric pattern of the circle.

As Shaeine stepped back into place, Teal took a step forward. She closed her eyes, inhaled deeply, then opened them.

“This will be for us, not just me,” she said quietly, and the fire subsumed her eyes, her hair, spreading from behind her as fiery wings. Claws and talons formed, lifting her almost a full foot higher off the ground. The harmonic chorus of Vadrieny’s voice was somber and incongruously gentle. “I feel we have little to offer of our own, but our gifts may build on what you have already invoked, all of you. Music is harmony, mathematics, emotion, passion, precision… All of it, all of life viewed from every angle. We lend our support to the peace and augmentation you have wished upon this space, to the barrier separating it out, and to the warning that any who mean us harm should not dare encroach. To all of you, to us, to this space, we offer our song.”

She closed her eyes, and hummed a single long note in her throat. The sounds around them were faint, only the distant sea of air and leaves, but a strangely harmonious quality descended upon them as Vadrieny softly lent her voice. The difference it made was barely comprehensible to mortal senses, but it could be felt. She slowly trailed off, her voice fading into silence, and by the end it was impossible to spot the exact point at which Vadrieny herself stopped humming and the music of the wind and earth took over.

As she stepped back into place and withdrew, leaving Teal behind, the silence was no longer silent. For a few long seconds, the whole group simply stood there, listening to inaudible harmonies surrounding them.

“I have the strangest feeling,” Fross finally said quietly. “Like…we’ve set into motion something super important, that we can’t fully understand.”

“I feel the same,” Shaeine agreed. “And that we must stay in motion. It is too late to stop.”

“It’s dangerous to do some things halfway,” said Gabriel, nodding. “But that’s the first half, done, and wherever this is going… Well, now’s the time to go there. This started with Teal, with the fundamental truth about bards, and the utility of masks. It expanded to Shaeine, and the discomfort between the expectations of her culture and how groups of people operate outside it. This…is all about masks. We’re borrowing from Vidian forms, as I said, but what we do here will be for us, by us, and it will be ours. We have a lot to learn from our faiths, but we won’t be defined by any one system.” He glanced at Trissiny and cracked a smile. “There’s an old saying about systems that comes to mind.”

She grinned back. After a momentary pause, Gabriel’s expression sobered and he continued, slowly looking around the group at each of them in turn.

“In our vigil last night, I asked you all to contemplate masks. Specifically, the one you wear which has the most use, the most potential, to be a gift offered to others. A Vesker bard plays a role in life in order to control the story they are in, but all that sets them apart is the skill and consciousness with which they do it. We’re all playing a role, wearing a mask; we wear many of them, in fact, in different situations. This ritual is one of sharing. It…is a great intimacy. Masks will be removed here, exposing true faces beneath. More than that, masks will be offered. Each of us will put forth into the circle the mask we wear most powerfully. In this way we not only make ourselves vulnerable, but we grant that power to each other to use. We will each share our strength eight ways.”

He paused before finishing in a quieter tone. “I love you all. I trust you with this…with the ability to hurt me. And I’m honored as hell that you’re all willingly here, doing the same.”

All of them smiled broadly. Even Shaeine, whose reddish eyes seemed to glitter in the drifting golden light.


So far, Principia was having a fairly quiet morning. The two Order of the Light guides were still asleep in their own improvised quarters, and the animals were very well behaved—or at least, Sniff was well-behaved, and F’thaan was asleep. By far the worst of her inconveniences was Merry and her pointed comments about Prin not getting the nap she had promised to.

The corporal was just gearing up for another of those when suddenly the elf, the protobird and the hellhound all snapped upright in unison, alert and watchful as deer which had scented a wolf.

“What?” she demanded, unconsciously reaching for her sword. “What is it?”

“Have you given much thought to the ramifications of this scheme of yours, Locke?” a new voice asked.

Merry whirled, then froze, her eyes widening. He was an oddly-dressed man in a truly ridiculous hat, otherwise physically nondescript, but she remembered him well from their previous encounter, brief as it was. Vesk winked cheekily at her in passing but did not slow, sauntering forward to stand next to Principia and stare across the distance at the Great Tree and the shattered fortress spread around its base.

The elf seemed to consider his question carefully before answering, one hand gently smoothing down Sniff’s crest of feathers. F’thaan huddled at her feet, staring up at the god in clear uncertainty whether he should be afraid.

“I give thought to everything I do,” Principia said at last. “But that wasn’t a sincere question, was it? You’re just opening the dialogue so you can talk at me.”

“Well, hey, you do know your theology!” Vesk chuckled, slapping her on the shoulder.

“I get by. What I don’t know is why you are here right now, but none of the possibilities aren’t terrifying. I remember what happened the last time.”

“I was okay with that,” Merry offered tremulously. “I mean, sure, we almost died half a dozen times, but it got us results.”

“See?” Vesk cocked a thumb over his shoulder at her. “She gets it. I’m gonna break character a bit and answer your question, my dear Keys. I’m here because a god is in truth a slave to their core concept. Because a motley collection of attractive and heavily-armed youths have just gathered up a big handful of every string tied to every magical force at work in the world and are fixing to yank on it until reality itself stretches so far that they can tear a piece off. And notably, because fully half of them are individuals I have personally sought out and designated my own protagonists in the big story playing out in the world right now. I’m here, to an extent, because somebody needs to apply a guiding hand to that so the result is something useful to them and not just a giant backlash that upends everybody’s applecart. But ultimately? I am here because I really don’t have a choice.”

“I see, she said sarcastically,” she said warily. “So…how come you are here, and not there? Nothing I’m doing is nearly as interesting as that.”

“Oh, that’s a very self-contained scene,” he explained. “It’s all very intimate; can’t have interlopers, it would throw off the whole dynamic. Nah, I can keep a weather eye on things from this close, and this way I’m not interfering in their business. Plus, this way I can indulge in some of my favorite pastimes! Y’know, light expository dialogue, perhaps a soupcon of character development. Specifically it allows me to ask that piercing question, which contains the hidden answer you’ll need to tell you what you will have to do in the aftermath of what’s about to happen thanks to those kids.”

He turned his head to regard her seriously.

“Do you realize, Principia Locke, what you are doing?”

“Okay, I’ll play along,” she said, subtly leaning away from him. “But not without spoiling the rhetorical game you’re playing by pointing it out. I still have to be me. What, Lord Vesk, am I doing?”

“You are building a bonfire that’s going to burn the world before it peters out,” he said in a much softer tone, turning back to gaze at the distant ruins. “Your actions here and in the days just ahead will gather the kindling and stack the wood, all so you can ignite a new Age of Adventures. And what those precious little bastards are about to do is strike a god damn spark.”


It was Teal who spoke first, after drawing in a steadying breath. “Well. This began with me, and with my own…bloody intransigence, that you all finally called me out for. It’s okay,” she added hastily when Toby and Juniper both opened their mouths to protest. “You were right, and I’m glad you did. I’ve been fighting with this for… Well, for my whole life. And while we were keeping vigil last night, I really focused on why. And I think, finally, I’ve sorted it out.

“Everything I have ever done in life has been a struggle between being myself, and hiding myself. From the very beginning, I think that’s why I was drawn to bards. In every story, the bard’s personality is both their armor and weapon. Gods, how I wanted that. My parents always wanted me to express who I was, but at the same time, there were always expectations… And then, there was Vadrieny, and the stakes suddenly became life or death. We… Well, I could retreat into myself and not be alone anymore. I needed less from others; she never needed others. We could be loved, alone together, and the world outside was nothing but expectations and rules. We managed. Without her own memories, she adopted my goals, and so we still loved the idea of the bard, wanted to be that. It’s just… Well, in our situation, adopting an oversized personality would have been a lethally bad idea.”

She turned her head to smile warmly at Shaeine. “And then there was her. All of you guys, don’t get me wrong, but mostly…her. Another person with whom to be vulnerable, and yet safe. Where there were no expectations, just us together. And… I realize, now, how I let us all slip into that rut. It was just so easy to let the few people we truly trusted give us roles to fulfill. We stopped trying to control our own life, let Tellwyrn and Ashaele tell us who to be. But…not Shaeine.”

Teal shifted to gaze directly at her mate, voice dropping to a whisper. “For all the strength you’ve given to me, to us, my love… Our love, I cherish the most that you were finally willing to stand up to me. Because I know how you hate to cause me pain, but you were willing anyway when I needed it. All of you,” she added, sweeping her gaze around the circle. “This is where we’ve come to after taking the night to try to parse it all. I don’t have answers, but thanks to you, I’ve faced the questions. I thank you for making me confront this. I don’t know where we are going next, but I realize, now, how we got here. And that is what I give you.”

She raised both hands to the sides of her face, pantomiming grasping the edges of a mask as Gabriel had instructed them all the night before. “This has become a crutch and a weakness for me, but it also enabled Vadrieny and I to survive when nothing else would have. I can’t depend on it any longer, but used the right way at the right time, there is great value in being able to project back at people whatever they expect to see. I take it off now, and give that value to you: the Mask of Mirrors.”

Teal moved her hands forward from her face, and there was a flash. She actually jumped, several of them gasped, and Ruda muttered a curse. Teal was holding an actual, physical mask, a simple oblong bowl shape with holes for the eyes and mouth. The entire thing was chrome, polished to such a gloss that it reflected in perfect detail like an actual mirror.

“Uh, whoah,” Teal said nervously. “I didn’t know it would make an actual… Gabe?”

“That…wasn’t supposed to…” He scratched the top of his head, squinting in puzzlement. “It’s a ceremony, all of this was supposed to be kind of metaphorical.”

“Yeah, so, here’s a theory,” said Ruda. “Maybe when you bring together a bunch of people intimately connected to a bunch of the major metaphysical powers of the world, have ’em improvise a ritual to magically define a sacred space right on top of one of the most already sacred spaces in the world and then have ’em do a ceremony they barely understand… Shit goes down.”

All of them were silent for a moment, staring at the light glittering across the Mask of Mirrors as Teal shifted it this way and that in her hands.

“Here’s what I can tell at a glance:” Fross said at last. “That thing is lousy with magic and I can’t tell at all what any of it does. Also, this part bothers me a little that I can’t articulate exactly why, but I’m not bothered. This feels okay. Is anybody else getting the same?”

There was a round of nods and murmurs of agreement.

“We are operating under a stack of blessings to judgment, intellect, and intuition,” Toby added. “I think if we were in danger, we would know. What I feel is that we should proceed.”

“Here,” Teal said softly. Holding up the Mask of Mirrors, she stepped forward two paces, turned its surface to face her, and then slowly released it, as though hanging it on a wall.

The mask remained in position when she let go. Teal stepped back into the line, and the Mask of Mirrors began a slow orbit, gliding in a continuous circle around Ruda’s sword as if to gaze at each of them in turn.

“Huh,” Juniper said in sheer wonder. “How’d you know it would do that?”

Teal shrugged. “It just felt right.”

“Well, then.” Trissiny stepped forward next. “I don’t even know what powers are operating here, but after last night I believe I know what I need to do. In a way…last night was kind of a point of closure for me. I know I’ve been apart from this group a lot lately, sorting out my own stuff, and while meditating on that I came to a surprising conclusion.”

She hesitated, then shook her head, smiling ruefully. “It’s the strangest thing. Going off on my own was what enabled me to find some truths I desperately needed. To grow in ways that were long overdue. It’s while I’ve been with you guys that I feel I’ve failed the most. Not because you were holding me back or anything—quite the opposite. Maybe because…because you were there to catch me when I fell.” Her eyes met Gabriel’s across the circle. “You have all seen me at my worst. And yet, I’m still welcome here. You’ve both backed me up and stood up to me when I needed it. I had friends, when I went to the Guild in Tiraas, this is true. People who helped me learn and supported me as I did them. It’s you who’ve come to define… Not who I am, but I think, the potential of who I could…who I want to be.”

Trissiny raised her hands as Teal had done, taking a deep breath and preparing to grasp the edges of a mask that did not yet exist. “My delusion was always the assumption that Avei was one thing, and Eserion something opposite. It’s more than those two; they aren’t even poles on one continuum. Life is vague, chaotic…there’s value in structures and systems, but we cannot be defined by them. The truth will not be handed to you. It must be hunted down, and it hides in surprising places. None of you are me; I know a bit about your personal journeys, by now. My answers won’t help you. But my means of finding them can. That is what I surrender, to offer my friends: the will and the method to seek out your own truth. The Mask of the Huntress.”

She pulled her hands away, the light flared in the circle, and Trissiny was holding a second mask. This one was identical to Teal’s in shape, but seemed to be carved of ebony. The right half of its face was marked with a silver eagle’s wing, just like the traditional tattoos worn by the Silver Huntresses of old. Trissiny held it up, hesitated, then released her fingers.

The Mask of the Huntress floated forward in the air to join the Mask of Mirrors, and began orbiting opposite it.

Gabriel blew out a short breath. “Man, this is all getting more real than I was planning on… Okay, here goes.” He stepped forward as Trissiny moved back into line. “I relate hard to a lot of what Trissiny just said. You guys…you’ve all see me do some pretty dumb stuff. I feel like you pretty much know what my foibles are by now so it’s not really worth reciting the list. If you really wanna hear the list I’m sure Ruda has it written down somewhere.” He paused, grinning, then let the expression of amusement subside quickly. “I fail a lot, even now. I’m not done growing, not by a long shot. The single most important thing I’ve learned is…to learn. Nobody has all the answers, or even most of them. Vidius himself told me that screwing around is my greatest strength, and I think I finally understand what he meant. You have to try things. Sometimes you’ll succeed, and gain a new trick. Sometimes you’ll fail, and get hurt, and gain a lesson. I couldn’t actually say which I think is the more valuable.”

He raised his hands to his face, taking a breath to steel himself. “Since this all started with talk about bards and archetypes, I’ve found myself thinking about that a lot. I remember some of the names people have called me over the years—including several of you lot—and something I picked up from a half-demon shopkeeper I met in Tiraas about fortune-telling: a tarot deck is just a list of archetypes, and a spread of cards doesn’t tell the future, it tells a story. That’s why the first card is the Fool, the ignorant kid who starts every great story not being worth a damn, but has the potential to grow into a hero. That’s the most valuable trait I have, and the one I want to share with you all:” He pulled, the air flashed, and he was holding up a third mask. “The Mask of the Fool.”

It was a little larger than the other two, due to its upper half being carved in the semblance of a multi-pointed jester’s hat. The rest was plain white ceramic, different from the previous two only in that its mouth was turned upward in a big smile.

Upon being released, it joined the other two in their slow circle, all three adjusting to be an equal distance apart.

“I think I like the way Fross put it,” Ruda said after a momentary pause. “I’m bothered that I’m not bothered. Yeah, this all feels weirdly correct, but… We are obviously fucking around with high-quality mojo that we weren’t expecting and don’t even slightly understand, and it’s doing some incredibly vivid shit that’s… I don’t even know what to make of this. Should we consider that maybe we ought to be more concerned than we are? I mean, Fross’s addition to that invocation was explicitly encouragement to trust our intellect.”

“It’s always wise to be wary of unknown magic,” Trissiny agreed, “but not every rule applies in every situation. This has a major fae component, it’s highly personal to us, and it is happening in one of the magically safest and most neutral spots in the world. At the moment, my intellect tells me to trust my feelings.”

“Yeah, I can see your point,” Ruda said, though she still frowned.

“Be mindful of what Yornhaldt and Ekoi have taught us,” Shaeine added. “In ritual magic, it is often far more dangerous not to finish what you start. In the interests of that, if no one objects, I would like to offer my contribution.”

The drow stepped forward one pace into the circle, again folding her hands at her waist, but unusually she inhaled a long deep breath, which was closer to a loss of composure than she usually betrayed in public.

“I hope that you will forgive my arrogance in saying this, but I feel that my journey at the University has been of a fundamentally different type than any of yours. I have found great joy in the privilege of watching you all grow into the people you will be, but for my part, I was assiduously trained and molded into the person I was to become long before we met. Not perfect by any means, and most certainly with a great deal to learn. But my path has been the least transformative of any of ours, I believe. I am a creature of Tar’naris, and would not—cannot—change that.”

She paused, lowering her eyes for a moment, then raised them again resolutely.

“Instead…I have been increasingly forced to face the limits of my perspective, even as I have become ever more committed to them. To be Narisian in an isolated society is a very different matter than to be Narisian in a wider, connected world. My people are grappling with this truth, and we must find answers as a society. Perhaps I can help with that, but I cannot presume to determine the solution Tar’naris as a whole will embrace. I only know what I feel I must do. And… And I am increasingly pained by the barriers between us. I need those; they are a central part of my identity. But the walls that define social roles, to me, are immutable and not for me to determine alone. Yet while I am outside my home city, they are not how things work. Not how people exist together. I am deeply grateful to all of you, to Gabriel, for this ceremony, for the half-measure it offers. To protect my identity as I must, while opening myself at least a little, as I so desperately want to.”

She met Teal’s eyes, the human smiling warmly with her eyes practically glowing with love. Shaeine raised her hands to touch the sides of her face, taking another long breath.

“I offer this mask to you all, partly in the hope that it may serve you. Because you all do tend to wear your hearts pinned to your robes, and some of you in particular might be better off with a bit of reserve to hide behind. But mostly, I do this to finally be able to remove it, and be…among you. One of the mess that is us.”

The change was the most dramatic yet, not just because she conjured a featureless gray mask out of thin air just by moving her hands, but because lowering it transformed her entire face. Suddenly, Shaeine was grinning at them, her features alight with joy, tears glistening unshed in her eyes.

“By the goddess, it feels good to say this. I love you. Each of you wonderful, ridiculous, brilliant, blithering idiots. I’d shed the last drop of my blood for the sake of any one of you, and I’m not just saying that because I know that having a bunch of ham-fisted powerhouses for friends means I’ll probably never have to back it up. Nobody gets to choose their family, and I sure as hell didn’t choose any of you weirdos—except Teal and Vadrieny, who already know this—but you’re as dear to me as any being alive and not for anything in the cosmos would I give up a single one of you. So I offer you the Blank Mask, and may it serve you at need. I’m just as glad to be rid of it.”

They were all grinning widely in return as the plain gray mask floated forward to join the others. Ruda chuckled aloud.

“Man, it really says something that the single most touching thing I’ve ever been told included calling me a blithering idiot.”

“Well, say what you will about this group,” Gabriel agreed, “we know who we are! And Shaeine, just, wow. You almost look like a different person! I wish I’d gotten to see you smile like that before, it makes you twice as gorgeous. I mean!” he said hastily, eyes widening as they shifted to look at Teal. “Not that I was—you know, I would never… Aw, crap.”

“Oh, look,” Juniper teased, “Gabe did an awkward.”

“At this point,” Trissiny said innocently, “shouldn’t we just call that doing a Gabriel?”

“Thank, Triss, that’s great.”

“I don’t mean to be a wet blanket or anything,” Fross chimed, “but is it maybe a bad idea to interrupt this inexplicably powerful sacred ritual with jokes and bickering?”

“Well, this is an extremely personal sacred ritual,” Toby replied, still smiling, “in a way the metaphysical and surprisingly literal embodiment of us. Looked at from that perspective, it might not work at all if we didn’t.”

“Okay, yeah, I’ve got no counterpoint and wow isn’t that just a little telling.” Fross fluttered forward a couple of feet to the accompaniment of laughter. “Since I’m already talking, then, I guess I’ll go next! So, irrespective of how this ceremonial thing works out, I’m already really grateful to Gabe for having this idea because of the vigil part last night. I’ve been learning and growing such a tremendous amount in just the last couple of years that I feel like an almost unrecognizably different person than I was when I first came to Last Rock, but I’ve never really stopped to look inward and think about why and how I’ve changed. Last night I realized I’m just not a very introspective person in general, and I feel like that might be a character flaw which I should watch out for in the future… But anyway, I feel like I’ve gained some valuable perspective here and I’m very glad for that. You all probably remember how I spent the first semester basically trying to memorize every rule and use that to get by in society?”

“The University isn’t exactly society,” Trissiny answered when the pixie paused, “but I don’t think I’ll ever forget you trying to teach us century-old adventurer slang on our first Crawl delve.”

Fross emitted an amused arpeggio of chimes. “Yeah, that’s pretty much what I mean. The thing is…it stems from the place I come from, what pixies are like, and how I’m inherently different. Not just the arcane magic thing, though I’m certain that’s connected. I had the chance to reflect a bit on this when Juniper and Aspen and…Professor Ekoi and I went to the Deep Wild a while ago.”

“You did what?” Gabriel asked, blinking.

Fross chimed again. “Long story, but anyway. There’s just not a lot to pixies, intellectually. As annoying as it is when people are surprised that I’ve got a functioning mind, I can’t a hundred percent blame them. Pixies are flying bundles of magic and emotion, and given how much I hated living that way I’ve tried really hard to devote myself to intellectual pursuits. And I regret none of that! Probably because all this has come along before I had the chance to find a way to really get myself in trouble with it, which I’m sure I would have because it seems like a core lesson of all history and psychology is that every virtue becomes a fault if you let it run away with you.

“What really struck me after spending a night pondering on it is how much I’ve been shaped as a person, and not just an intelligent being, by you guys. It seems like everything I’ve learned about functioning as a person in relation to other people was shaped by this class, and I’m suddenly incredibly grateful that I was in a class with you specifically and not a lot of the other people we’ve met, because wow. People can be pretty awful. Shaeine’s right, all of us can be ridiculous and weird and flawed at times, but when it comes down to it? You guys are the family I wouldn’t have known to ask for if anyone had told me beforehand that I needed one, and I’m so grateful for you.

“In the end it wasn’t hard at all for me to see the mask I’ve been hiding behind. And you know what, I still appreciate it. It’s a very useful quality which, no offense, most of you could use a little more of. But I’m glad for this chance to introspect, and see how I shouldn’t over-rely on one trait at the expense of others that are also valuable. So I’m taking off the Mask of Logic, and sharing it with you, but it’s a mask I plan to wear again. A lot. Maybe not as much, though.” She paused, then chimed discordantly. “I’m sure you can’t see but I’m totally doing that ceremonial gesture Gabe told us about. If this produces a pixie-sized mask I’m really gonna laugh.”

In fact, the flash of light seemed somewhat muted as the color of Fross’s bright aura reduced it to an anomalous flicker in context, but the Mask of Logic itself was full-sized to match the others. Its oval shape was the same, though its eye and mouth holes were simple, narrow rectangular slits, the mask’s porcelain white surface marked with angular geometric patterns in pale blue that were reminiscent of Fross’s addition to the protective circle around them now.

There was a short, pensive pause while they watched the five masks spin in their slow midair circle, the stylized faces seeming to study each of them in turn as they passed by.

It was Juniper who broke the quiet, stepping forward and unconsciously fingering her new sunburst pendant.

“I’ve really appreciated hearing all this,” the dryad said quietly. “Maybe I’m pretty self-centered, but I guess I never really understood that you were all grappling with these issues, too. You’ve all matured a lot and changed some while I’ve known you, but all of you always seemed… Well, it seemed to me like you understood what you were going through in a way I never did. Now I kinda feel like I was wrong about that. Um, no offense meant.”

“None’s taken,” Trissiny said a little wryly. “That’s a really valid observation, Juniper.”

“The more I learn,” Gabriel intoned with utter solemnity, “the more I understand that I understand fuck all about anything.”

“The more I learn,” Ruda added in the same tone, “the more I understand that Gabe knows fuck all about anything.”

“Your parents didn’t stab you nearly enough growing up, Ruda.”

“Guys,” Toby interjected. “Please go on, Juniper.”

“It’s okay,” she said, smiling. “I like this. It’s…gentle. I sort of appreciate how we are as a group, how we can joke and needle and even be a little hostile and yet there’s always this unspoken certainty that we’re safe together. It’s…a nurturing context that I badly needed, and I’ve only just learned how much.”

She hesitated, her expression wavering, and then steeled herself, squaring her shoulders.

“I started my personal adventure among society thinking that living by impulse and animal instinct made me natural and right, and all the rest of everything civilized people did was aberrant and I didn’t have to respect it. And…immediately I started to realize how wrong that was, but I hid from it for a long time. Until things built to a head and I couldn’t anymore, and…well, you were all there.” Juniper paused to take another deep, steadying breath. “I don’t know how much better I’ve done since then. I’ve tried. I’ve succeeded some…failed a lot. I’ve done some good and a lot of harm. The truth is, I have no idea what I’m doing, or where I’m going, or how to be a person. But… But I feel, for maybe the first time, like I’m getting there. Like I can afford to make mistakes, and be wrong sometimes, and it’ll be an opportunity to learn and grow and not just another disaster. Almost everything I understand about how to not be a monster, I got from you all. You’re my family, more than Naiya or even my sisters have ever been. You’re the forces that have shaped me the most in directions that I’m proud of. I will always be grateful for you all.

“And so.” She lifted her hands to her face, closing her eyes. “I still don’t know what I’m doing, but I’m gonna keep trying. And I now formally disavow this crutch, this lie that I’ve used to hide from reality. I will not touch it again. Maybe it will be of some use to you. I don’t really see how, but I mean to do my very best to be a good friend, and try to give you all the support you’ve given me. As a person, not as a vehicle for magical bullshit. And I will do all that, whatever happens, without hiding behind the Mask of the Wild.”

It emerged from nothingness in a flash, a deep crimson mask painted in the countenance of a great fanged, snarling mouth. Notably, it had no eye holes, only painted-on eyes with slitted snakelike pupils. Rather than just letting it go as the others had done, Juniper pushed it firmly away from herself. The action didn’t seem to affect the speed of its motion as it joined the rotating circle of masks.

Ruda took one stride forward even before Juniper had retreated. “Well! Sorry, Tobes, maybe this is selfish but I just don’t wanna be last.”

“It’s okay,” he said, smiling at her.

“So, real talk,” she said, tucking her hands into her pockets. “I feel a little like Shaeine in that I mostly had my shit sorted before I ever met you guys. Which is not to say the last two years haven’t been life-changing and revelatory, but more in the sense of giving me context than changing who I am. I, uh…” She cleared her throat. “Okay, truth is, I kinda let my guard down on this back during the hellgate crisis. Just with Trissiny, though. I mean, honestly, for someone I mostly wanted to stab from the moment we met, that girl really turned out to be a sister to me. In the sense that I never asked for or wanted her but god damn if my whole world wouldn’t fall apart without her.”

“I love you too, Ruda,” Trissiny said, grinning.

Ruda flipped her off, which only make her smile wider. “Here’s my truth: I’m the destined leader of what looks a lot like a doomed nation, and before I came to Last Rock I’d mostly made peace with the fact that the Punaji people were going to fall apart with me at the helm and that was just that. And when I said as much to Shiny Boots back then, she pointed out that we, this group here, are a passel of the most well-connected heavy-hitters in the world and something I could rely on for help. To change even the inevitable. It was…a nice thought. But then… But then you all came to Puna Dara with me…well, even if it was just most of you…and suddenly it wasn’t a thought anymore.”

She stopped, closed her eyes, and was utterly still for a long stretch of seconds. The rest of them just watched patiently until she was ready.

“I’m so fucking scared,” Ruda finally said, her voice cracking. “I can’t do this. I have no idea how to save my people, but I have to try, and I was so sure I would obviously fail. The first time I killed a man, my papa sat me down and told me how important it was to have family, people I could trust to be close enough to be vulnerable with. I listened, then, but I didn’t learn. It took you preposterous fucking assholes to really make me understand. When I say I’ve come to rely on you all, both now and in the future, it’s not because you’re an adventuring party of demigods and titans and shit that could tear apart an empire with your bare fucking hands. Well, all right, not just that, not even mostly that. It’s…” She scrubbed angrily at her eyes. “Fuck. My whole life has been projecting this…this mask of strength and savagery and it’s so fucking exhausting. I’m so grateful for you. It’s not easy for me to let it down, but…I know I can. I can be vulnerable, with you guys. And that means everything.”

Ruda inhaled deeply, her breath shuddering a bit, then rubbed at her eyes once more before putting her hands to the sides of her face. “I will always need the Storm’s Mask, but fuck am I glad to be able to take it off once in a while.”

And she did, pulling it away with a flash of light. The mask in Ruda’s hands glittered cerulean, it surface jewel-like with surprising depths like the sea itself. The single jagged white line of a lightning bolt descended from its crow to between its eyes, where it forked to bracket a snarling mouth. Ruda held it up and out slowly, in a gesture of more reverence than she showed to almost anything, and it drifted into place with the others.

“We may be a bunch of blithering weirdo assholes,” Gabriel said, “but we’ve got your back, Ruda. All the way.”

“That’s what family means,” Shaeine agreed, wearing an open smile that seemed to delight in its own existence. “Your people are our people, your problems our own. I’m sorry I didn’t get to help at Puna Dara last time. Next time somebody threatens your home I’ll be right there helping you fuck ’em up.”

“Okay, that’s even weirder than Boots coming back all smug and thiefy,” Ruda replied, grinning helplessly even while continuing to wipe away tears. “But y’know what, damn if I don’t dig it.”

Toby glided one step forward, but then just stood unobtrusively for a few moments, wearing a gentle smile while the group subsided and calmed on its own time, gradually turning their attention toward him.

“I’m very comfortable being last,” he said frankly. “That’s pretty much the theme I’ve come down to after spending a night contemplating on it. I’ve always been one to put others first, and I’m okay with that about myself. Even, as Shaeine once pointed out to me, when I take it too far; nobody can help anybody else if they use themselves up first. Virtues really do become vices when you stretch them past their natural end point. I’ll try to do better at remembering my place, relative to others, and looking out for myself. But honestly, one of the things I cherish about this group is how I get to just…take care of you guys. Because you take care of me, even when I forget to.”

He paused to grin broadly, the expression slowly subsiding to a softer smile as he continued. “I say this without pride or false modesty: I’m a good person. I don’t consider that a source of pride, even. I believe that people are good, that if you guide them away from mistakes what lies underneath is something fundamentally virtuous. Everything good about me was given to me by others. Because I had the opportunity to be raised by monks, and trained in virtue from the cradle, rather than having to develop selfish habits just to survive. A principled, austere childhood is an enormous luxury. I am very grateful for what I was given.

“But good or not, I am a very flawed person…as much as anyone, I think.” Toby’s face grew sober, and his eyebrows drew together. “That insight has been really important to me, the fact that you can take a good trait too far and make it a bad one. I’ve been guilty of that. Worse… This doctrine of masks has been a real eye-opener to me, and I’m very glad for having spent the night meditating on it. Because that’s exactly the stupid thing I have done my whole life. Not just abusing the kindness and calm I was taught to my own detriment, but using them…misusing them to hide from myself, and from reality. I’ve had a series of rude shocks and a serious talking-to by an actual goddess recently about how I’ve spent my whole life twisting the virtues of peace around to make myself functionally useless, and now that I’ve spent some time really contemplating it, I feel like I understand what I did wrong. How the truth has been in front of me the whole time. How, specifically, you have been a huge blessing that I’ve completely squandered from the moment I met you all. I’m deeply ashamed, and deeply sorry.”

“I don’t think you’re squandered, Toby,” Fross chimed.

“Let him get this out,” Trissiny said softly.

Toby smiled at both of them in turn. “Thanks, Fross, Triss. The thing is… Peace is good. Compassion is good. Serenity is good. I was taught to think they are the ultimate good, the core of life, and I still don’t think that’s wrong. But they’re not the only good. And worse, they become an easy mask for apathy and laziness and fear. If you dwell too much on peace, you can very easily start using that to hide from the world and from responsibility. From reality. From…the practical truth that Professor Ezzaniel laid down for me from day one, that I’ve taken an inexcusably long time to really accept: peace doesn’t happen unless someone forces it to. And that is the thing: you, as a group, are basically the best role models I could have had when it comes to controlled, careful, mindful, principled violence. Even at your worse, all of you are constantly trying to be better, to do better, both for yourselves and more importantly for others, and I’ve consistently betrayed that example. Looking back, the whole time we’ve known each other, I have been at my worst when I’ve tried to lead and teach you instead of watching and learning from you, which has been most of that time. I’m glad for however I’ve been able to help you, but the way I’ve wasted the example you’ve set is just shameful. I appreciate each and every one of you, as individuals, and all of you as a whole, and I have never appreciated you enough. I resolve to do better from now on.”

He lifted his hands, closing his eyes and letting his expression relax into a meditative calm. “There is great value in serenity, and I hope you can gain some from what I give up to you now. But there’s a dark side to it; serenity is a hair’s breadth from fatal passivity at its best. May you get good use from the Mask of Serenity in the future, as I have, and as I will. I must stop using it to hide from myself, and I thank you for teaching me that. I’m sorry it took me so long to listen.”

Toby pulled it away from himself, and then was holding the final mask. It was a gentle, matte gold, its carved mouth set in a faint smile, with a branch of dogwood flowers painted across its surface. He held it up with one hand and pushed it away, and it took its place with the others, the circle shifting to settle into its ultimate rotation of eight masks.

“Something about the sight of that, though,” Ruda murmured. “Just…those faces. It’s kind of uncomfortable. They don’t even look like people, but I can see how each one of them is one of us.”

“I can, too,” Juniper agreed. “I think…it’s because we know each other.”

“I feel kind of raw,” Trissiny said frankly. “It’s weird… I’m not used to ‘exposed and vulnerable’ being a good feeling.”

“It’s a good sort of pain,” said Shaeine. “Like the burn after good exercise.”

“Well, Gabe?” Toby asked, turning toward him. “How much is the rest of the ceremony thrown off by being, ah, unexpectedly physical?”

“I think,” Gabriel said thoughtfully, “the thing to do is just continue and let whatever’s going on sort itself out, the way it’s been doing. Shaeine was right, it’s a bad idea to start something like this and leave it half-done. Especially if it starts getting more real than you expected.”

He cleared his throat, deliberately marshaling his expression, and instinctively they all sobered as well, embracing the gravitas of the moment.

“This is about intimacy,” Gabriel said, his voice now ringing with purpose. “We are exposed to one another by lowering these masks, and baring our true faces. But it goes much deeper than that, and will continue to do so going forward. By sharing these masks, by explaining them, we grant to each other the opportunity to wear our own face, to see through our own eyes, to suffer our weaknesses and gain our strengths. We are bonded to one another through this. Whatever happens in the future, we have been open, together, and nothing will undo that.”

He paused, watching the masks spin, as did they all.

“And let’s be honest,” Gabriel said with a sudden grin. “The point was for this to be about us, and it could only be truthful this way: with a lot of aimless, time-wasting dicking around and fooling about with incredible powers we don’t understand. But hey, we made it work. We will make it work. I love you all, and I’m honored to be by your side.

“Truth is, guys…the world’s a mess. With the great doom and all, and also a million lesser forces trying to carve out a place for their own petty ambitions. Maybe it’s more of a mess now than it always is, but then again, maybe not. We can’t know that and aren’t qualified to judge it. We can’t save the world; as powerful as we are, even the gods have their limitations and we sure as hell have our own. But we can help. We’ve made ourselves better, and made each other better, and with all our various nonsense up till now, we’ve even made the world around us a little better. And that is all that’s asked of anyone, all that’s required of everyone.

“Do better. Be more. Keep on trying, and give it your best. That, my friends, we can do.”

The masks began to whirl faster. The students instinctively braced themselves as the orbiting circle continued to accelerate, and then light and shadow began to be drawn in as though by their very gravity. The circle of masks shrank, pulling ever tighter, and even the circles around them followed suit. Sunbeams and drifting feathers appeared to focus their descent onto a single point just above Ruda’s rapier, wisps of silver light streaming toward the same point from where they rose from the ground. The arcane traceries shifted inward, followed by the almost imperceptible ring of shadows outside them, and then even the tiny flowers springing up from the stones. Faster, deeper, everything was gathered toward a single point, the very wind around them rising and blowing inward as the gentle sound of harmonious air through leaves rose to a gale pitch.

It took only seconds, eight masks and multiple sources of light and magic coalescing to a single point. When it was all fully compressed, the thunderclap that split the air drove all of them to their knees, causing even Fross to plummet to the ground.

Disorienting as that was, though, it was no worse than that; the group slowly pulled themselves back up, blinking and taking stock, none of them hurt.

Ruda’s rapier lay untouched upon the stones. There were no more flowers or unusual light effects, only the soft sound of leaves rustling high above, and the pale light of early dawn rising in the east.

And in the center, still hovering in the air and slowly rotating, was a single mask.

It didn’t look much like any of the eight which had coalesced to form it: the mask was of wood, pale and polished with a deep reddish grain. Its small mouth opening seemed to show a neutral expression, but its eye slits were curved upward in a way that suggested a smile. Its only decoration was a rounded tracery of softly glowing silver lines over its left side, encircling the eye and descending to one corner of its mouth.

“So…what the fuck?” Ruda inquired.

Fross drifted closer. “Okay, well… Remember when I said the Mask of Mirrors was incredibly magical and I couldn’t tell how?”

“Yes,” said Trissiny. “I take it this is the same?”

“Not really the same. All the other masks were the same. This… You guys can sense it too, right? Those of you who are used to detecting magic?”

“Yeah,” Gabriel said quietly, straightening up. “Magically speaking… That thing is like standing next to the sun.”

“I’m pretty sure it incorporates all four major schools and a good bit of shadow magic,” Fross agreed, bobbing excitedly in the air.

“Okay,” Ruda said, nonplussed. She bent to pick up her sword, giving the hovering mask as wide a berth as she could in the process. “So…what are we supposed to do about it?”

“Well, after all, there’s only one thing you’re supposed to do with a mask,” said Teal. Having helped Shaeine to her feet, she released the drow and took three steps forward, reaching out toward the mask.

“My love, please,” Shaeine said, wearing open worry on her face. “Don’t be reckless.”

“I don’t…think…I am,” Teal said pensively, hesitating with her hand outstretched by not quite touching the artifact yet. “I’m open to correction if anyone disagrees, but I don’t believe this is about risk. It’s about…trust. Gabe? Any Vidian insight?”

“Well, masks are obviously sacred in Vidianism,” Gabriel said slowly. “And that is obviously something incredibly powerful. I think that’s two different things, though. This isn’t about Vidius, all things considered. It’s about us, and possibly the nature of magic itself. I think…you’re right, Teal. No, let me be more accurate: I feel you’re right. Trust is a good way to describe it.”

“Be careful, Teal,” Trissiny urged.

“This did start with Teal, after all,” Toby said quietly. “It became about all of us, but it began with us trying to offer her our support. It’s fitting if that’s where it leads, as well.”

“Yeah, be careful,” Juniper agreed, “but do what you need to. We’re all right here for you.”

Shaeine glided forward and embraced Teal openly from behind. She pressed a small kiss against her wife’s ear, then rested her chin on her shoulder. “Do what you must, beloved. You face nothing alone.”

“Thank you.” Teal closed her eyes momentarily, leaning her head to rest against Shaeine’s for a few seconds, then straightened up. “All of you.”

The mask did not react to her touch; she was able to pull it from its place suspended in the air without resistance. Teal slowly turned it over in her hands, studying it from all sides, while the rest of the group edged forward, watching in silence.

Then Teal Falconer raised the Mask of the Adventurer to her face, and plunged into another Age.

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15 – 21

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It might have been the most peaceful place she had ever seen.

Peace hung in the air like the warm scent of bark, like the silvery-green leaves which occasionally fluttered down and danced around the ancient pitted courtyard on tiny gusts, like the shafts of coppery sunlight that crossed the open space at an angle from the west. It was a familiar sensation, one she had experienced in Toby’s presence, especially when he was filled with his god’s power. Peace as a tangible quality, something not felt by any of the physical senses for which there were names, but clearly experienced and understood just as well.

This was the first time she had felt that peace just existing, though. When it happened at Omnu’s behest, that was an act of will. An exertion of power, an attempt to deny the brutal nature of life and impose something better. In the week since they’d returned to school, she had begun to suspect Toby finally understood that fact; there was a directness in him beneath his serenity that hadn’t been there before, an unyielding oak behind the bending willow. The three paladins had been cagey about their experiences over the summer, but she was coming around to the opinion that some answers needed to be dragged out of them, one way or another. If nothing else, she very much wanted to know what had pounded some understanding into Toby.

He wasn’t the only one who still needed to absorb that lesson.

Teal’s consciousness shivered unhappily within her, and Vadrieny paused, taking a moment just to be with her counterpart, to acknowledge the love between them. It was love strained with growing tension, a complex state of emotions that, like the peace beneath the Great Tree, could not have easily been spoken but could absolutely not be denied.

The fortress was physically defined by the roots of the tree now supporting it as much as by its own shape. Apart from the cataclysmic battle that had wrecked it to its foundations, three thousand years atop a mountain had reduced worked stone to weathered shapes that might just as well have been so many boulders. It seemed as if the tree itself had made an effort to preserve what there was of the old fortress.

That might have been the literal case. Between gods, the Crawl, and the Golden Sea, she was well aware that a consciousness too diffuse to carry on a conversation could still have an agenda and the means to enact it.

Vadrieny climbed carefully up the roots to the trunk, balancing on each step without allowing her talons to dig into the wood. The colossal trunk was vertically flat on this side, enormous roots fanning out to embrace the ancient courtyard and leaving a towering, arched surface against the rear. In shape, it actually very much resembled a gate. There was no hellgate here, though, not even the distinctive prickle of infernal magic at work. This might be the least magically corrupted place she had ever visited; even the Temple of Avei had a martial harshness to its ambient energies, never mind that her Talisman of Absolution was meant to protect her from them.

The archdemon rested one clawed hand against the living wooden surface where, long ago, there had been a gate to Hell. One she had passed through in both directions.

Nothing here sparked even a hint of memory.

Wings folded, she climbed back down just as carefully and made a slow circuit of the courtyard on foot, gazing across every feature of the wood and stone encircling it.

Nothing.

Her eye was caught by a depression in the ground, slightly off-center from the gate. Vadrieny paced around it in a full circle, then stepped down into it and carefully stretched herself out.

Its walls were gently sloped after millennia of erosion, but with her wings spread behind her and limbs spread, it was almost like the base of the crater, over a yard down, was shaped like a person of about her dimensions. As if something had made a Vadrieny-shaped hole in the ground.

Then again, it was probably just the wind-carved remains of some forgotten artillery strike. Professor Tellwyrn had covered in detail the propensity of the sapient mind to find patterns that weren’t there and attach significance to things that had none.

She still lay there, though, staring up at the branches of the tree. The sheer size of the thing made it hard to get a sense of perspective; a tree that big was outside her frame of reference, and the sight messed with her instinctive sense of spatial relationships. But that, too, would be corrected with time and exposure, if they stayed here long enough.

It was funny, how you couldn’t really trust your own mind. Funny, and horrifying. Tellwyrn said the best you could do was to be aware of the ways it tended to go wrong, and try to account and compensate for them.

A lot of them could benefit from some practice at that art.

The distant yapping noise made Vadrieny clamber back out of the hole, snapping her wings once to dislodge dust, leaves, and stray bits of gravel. She turned toward the tumbled gap at the front of the courtyard that had once been its gates, pacing forward to meet what was coming.

He emerged over a low ridge of fallen rocks, bounding toward her in comical little leaps each punctuated by a yip. Vadrieny couldn’t help but smile as she met the young hellhound partway. F’thaan flopped over on his side upon reaching her, panting furiously, his tail beating an excited pulse against the dirt despite his obvious fatigue.

“Aw, buddy,” she murmured, ruffling his ears. He licked at her claws. “Poor guy, that was quite a hike, wasn’t it? And what did you do with Shaeine? You know you’re not supposed to run off on your own.”

F’thaan, unrepentant, struggled back upright and began pawing at her leg.

When the others caught up, they found Vadrieny sitting on a root, slowly stroking the half-grown pup draped over her lap, already sound asleep.

Shaeine quickened her pace, crossing the broken ground with that almost liquid glide of hers and nonetheless moving as fast as a human in a sprint. Vadrieny smiled, watching her approach. Just the sight of the drow—their wife, though neither of them was truly accustomed to the thought yet—was enough to make both her and Teal feel physically warmer, a blend of pure adoration and carnal hunger, neither of which showed signs of fading with familiarity. She was such a vision, a sleek, dainty specter of beauty and danger constrained by the serenity of her own will, those garnet eyes glittering with promises for no one else to interpret.

Shaeine slipped onto the root next to her and Vadrieny draped an arm and wing around her slim shoulders. For a moment the drow hesitated, stiffening barely perceptibly, then relaxed into the embrace. She took no offense; this was a public space, and those distinctions were drilled into her with a severity that went beyond culture and religion. The drow of Tar’naris couldn’t function without their rigid distinctions and hierarchies. Shaeine relaxing in public wasn’t a simple matter of coaxing her out of her shell. Even now, the bare extent to which she was willing to relax and show feeling around others was offered only to the handful of people now joining them.

The rest of the class of 1182 crossed the old courtyard more sedately, gazing around at the scenery now that they were satisfied Vadrieny didn’t need any immediate help.

“Well,” Ruda said aloud after they had assembled in a loose cluster near Vadrieny and Shaeine, the pirate tilting her head back with fists on hips to stare up at the swaying branches high above. “Whaddaya think of that?”

“I never thought I would say this,” Juniper murmured, “but this tree…makes me uneasy.”

“How’s that, Juno?” Gabriel asked.

“It feels…it smells…” The dryad shook her head, absently running a hand over the beak of her little bird-thing companion. “It’s not exactly the same, but the feeling I get from this tree makes me think…sister. And my knee-jerk reaction is that no, Mother would never do something like that. Then comes everything I’ve learned and I realize that yes, of course she would.”

Sniff leaned against her leg in silent support. Vadrieny would never have said so aloud, but she already liked the proto-bird better than Juniper’s last pet. Even with his training apparently just begun, Sniff behaved himself in public and actually performed useful tasks, two feats Jack had never managed.

“Nothing about this suggests sentience to me,” Fross buzzed, circling lazily above their heads. “I’ve never felt an instinctive kinship with dryads or other fairies, though. With the way pixies are raised, that really…wouldn’t work.”

Trissiny sat down on Vadrieny’s other side on the root, of course not nearly as close as Shaeine. “I don’t understand the magic at work here,” the paladin mused, also staring up at the tree, “but I could get used to it. This place feels…safe.”

“Yeah,” Vadrieny agreed, gently squeezing Shaeine’s shoulder, ever mindful of her talons. “For me, even. Safe, and unfamiliar.”

Trissiny looked at her, inquisitive but not pushing.

“I was worried,” the archdemon admitted. “You know I’ve had flashes before, little bits that rise to the surface. After what Tellwyrn said, I thought maybe a place like this would…” She trailed off, and shook her head. “I wanted to face it alone at first, just in case. But no, nothing. Not a twinge.”

Shaeine mutely rested a hand atop the claws that were slowly stroking F’thaan’s dark fur.

“I’m sorry, Vadrieny,” Toby said simply.

“No, it’s for the best. Like I said, I was worried, not hopeful. I think Trissiny put it best, back when we visited the Temple of Avei. My history is not a good one to have. However it came about, I got a blank slate, and… Some things about my existence now might be a little awkward, but whose life is perfect? I have everything anybody could reasonably desire.”

She shifted to press a brief kiss to Shaeine’s hair. Again, a fleeting stiffness passed through the drow’s body, instinctive discomfort with the display in front of others. It brought a responding pang from both Vadrieny and Teal, equally fleeting and then gone. Their relationship was necessarily complex, but all three of them understood it. Love soothed over many affronts, so long as it was nurtured.

Trissiny was gazing up at the tree again, her expression far away. “It’s so easy to forget that Elilial is a person. Was once, anyway. The choices she made were the ones that seemed best to her at the time, under circumstances I doubt any of us could even imagine living through. She was a friend to the Pantheon. I can’t help but wonder what could possibly have been going through her mind.”

“Sympathy for the Dark Lady, now,” Ruda said incredulously. “What the fuck did those thieves do to you, Boots?”

“Oh, it’s not just them,” Trissiny said with a passing grin. “And it’s not sympathy, just…understanding. Or an effort at understanding, anyway. The enemy you refuse to understand is the one who’ll defeat you.”

“Careful with that, though,” Gabriel murmured, also staring up at the tree. “What you understand too deeply, you become. If you’re not practiced at taking that mask off when you’re done with it, you might find it stuck in place.”

“I can’t conjure up any sympathy for…my mother,” Vadrieny said quietly. “Whatever the reasons for her choices, she made them. I can’t imagine anything that justifies the harm she’s done to the world and everyone on it. Thinking about the fact that I used to be a willing part of that… The sensation is like vertigo. But,” she added in a softer tone, “I do wish I could have known my sisters.”

Shaeine deliberately leaned her head against Vadrieny’s shoulder, nodding once to rub her cheek against her.

“It must be hard to disentangle those things, huh,” Fross said, fluttering down to hover in front of the archdemon. “I feel like I don’t get to hear your perspective very much, Vadrieny. I’m sorry to just be hearing about this now.”

“It’s fine,” she said, smiling. “And it’s not so very hard to reconcile. All I have to do is remember that, in the end, Elilial and her schemes are the reason I don’t have sisters.”

“Vadrieny,” Trissiny said seriously, turning again to face her, “I don’t really know if I can call you sister. I mean, whether that closeness has been earned. But after the last two years I can say that I would be honored to.”

“How is that done?” Shaeine asked suddenly. “In your Sisterhood, that is. I assume there is some rite of adoption that links sisters in arms?”

“Well, not…explicitly,” Trissiny said with a thoughtful frown. “There are formalities in joining either the Legions or the clergy, of course. And within those groups there’s a very strong sense of sorority. But then, the doctrine of the faith teaches that there is a universal sisterhood among women. It’s…well, it’s vague, Shaeine. I, uh, guess it’s all very un-Narisian. All feelings and personal judgment and working things out organically, how matters stand between any two particular women.”

“I see,” Shaeine murmured. “I have been… More and more, lately, I struggle to reconcile the different parts of my life. I will never be anything but Narisian, nor do I desire to. But I feel I have become sufficiently Imperial that… That the very barriers I must keep up to protect my own identity have begun to pain me. There are people I no longer wish to keep on the other side of them…people for whom adoption into my House is simply not a prospect.”

“Aw, honey,” Ruda said, grinning as usual, but with sincere compassion now. “We all love you, too.”

“Yeah,” Gabriel added. “Ruda even declined to punch you, that’s gotta show how serious she is. Remember that time she—”

“Fucking stabbed you,” all eight of them chorused, Ariel included. F’thaan raised his head, peering sleepily around at them.

“I just want to make sure everyone remembers,” Gabriel said primly.

“The record time elapsed between you making sure we remember is one week,” Fross informed him. “I have kept track.”

“Course you have, Fross.”

“I have a question,” Vadrieny said suddenly, “for Toby and Trissiny. And Gabriel, I suppose. The Pantheon-trained among us.”

“Oh?” Toby asked.

Vadrieny drew a deep breath, seeking to still the emotional clamor rising up in her. Most of it wasn’t hers. “What is it that defines a bard?”

A beat of silence passed. The first hints of tension gathered in it.

“Based on that lead-in,” Trissiny said in a careful tone, “I assume you’re not interested in an easy definition covering musical ability or membership in the Vesker cult.”

“Sort of? My knowledge of the Vesker cult is thirdhand, at best. We’ve had a conversation with Vesk himself, and yet…”

“Control,” Toby said quietly.

Everyone turned to look at him.

“The world isn’t made of stories,” he said, “it’s made of math. But the way people perceive the world is made of stories. Thought is narrative, that’s the heart of Vesker doctrine. Every cult, every tradition, ever mortal pursuit, is an attempt at control through some method or other. If you think of the core actions of Avenists, of Eserites, of Elilinists or Omnists or anyone, it all comes down to a belief about what the world should be and a set of actions intended to make it so. Including, necessarily, a means of imposing your will on the people who have a different vision. Veskers…bards…do it by stepping into the story and controlling how it develops. You can’t change the physical world that way, but you can certainly change the way people perceive what’s happening to them. And therefore, what they decide to do about it. At least,” he added with a self-conscious little shrug, “that’s the theory.”

“That…is really well-put,” Vadrieny said slowly. “Thank you, Toby. That tracks perfectly with everything I’ve learned from Teal. When she would read adventure stories as a girl, it was always the bards she admired because they got done what they needed to without resorting to force, or even trickery a lot of the times. It was like they just… Knew how people worked, and got the results they needed from that.” She nodded, gently squeezing Shaeine. “Teal never laid it out in those terms, but that’s what it was. Skillful, passive control.”

In the quiet, there was only the breath of wind across the courtyard, the sound of air through leaves so high above them and in so vast a spread of branches that it was like the sound of a nearby sea.

“This is an awkward silence,” Fross stated at last. “The thing we are all carefully not saying is how Teal does absolutely none of any of that.”

All of them lowered their eyes, Gabriel and Trissiny sighing softly. Shaeine once again pressed her head against Vadrieny’s shoulder.

“I don’t know if I could even tell you how hard it is to have to do this,” Vadrieny whispered, “but by myself, I can’t make her… It’s getting to be too much. She depends on Shaeine to make any arrangements to ward off conflict, and on me to smash down whatever else slips through. And if Teal was weak, or stupid, I could accept that. There’s nothing I would not do to protect her, and my love for her isn’t contingent on anything she does. But she doesn’t need this. She’s so smart, and so gifted, and so averse to proving it! And so, so afraid of her own capacity to do anything that she…doesn’t. As if exerting any energy onto the world were an act of violence.”

“I recently received a stern lecture about confusing pacifism with passivity,” Toby said with a sigh. “I think Teal could’ve benefited from hearing it, too.”

“Okay, I need to interject something here.” Ruda stepped forward, and then crouched on her heels in front of Vadrieny so that she was looking up at the seated archdemon from a lower position. “I really feel like we don’t get to talk with you nearly enough, Sparky, and I really hate the thought of asking you to go back inside so we can talk to Teal instead. But the fact is we’re now criticizing a friend behind her back and that really sits badly with me.”

“Teal is fully conscious of this conversation,” Trissiny pointed out, her forehead creased in a worried frown.

“Yeah,” Ruda retorted, scowling back, “but she’s not able to have her say in it!”

“Teal does not need to have her say,” Shaeine whispered. All of them turned to stare at her in naked surprise. The priestess squeezed her eyes shut, visibly struggling for control, then turned and wrapped both arms around Vadrieny, pressing herself close. “My beloved, light of my universe… There is nothing I would not do for you. I have broached this gently, and in private, and you don’t hear. I cannot fail to serve you as you need from your mate…and if that means I must shame you before our friends, I will not flinch from it. I will abase myself in whatever manner I must to earn your forgiveness again, but they are right. You need to shut up and hear this.”

She buried her face in Vadrieny’s collarbone, shoulders quivering with barely-repressed sobs. The demon swept a glowing wing around Shaeine, all but hiding her from view and cradling her head with one clawed hand.

“Love,” Toby said in a soft cadence as if reciting something, “means placing another’s needs before your own. And sometimes, what a loved one needs is a swift kick in the ass.”

“There will be no abasing,” Vadrieny murmured, caressing Shaeine’s hair with careful talons. “She adores the air you breathe, aithrin. And she knows we’re right about this. These are family. There’s nothing to forgive.”

“Man, this is really uncomfortable,” Ruda grumbled, standing back up and beginning to pace. “Putting all my instincts against each other, here. You gotta have straight talk between friends, but you can’t do it at somebody who can’t talk back…but fuck if this isn’t overdue. Teal, you’re the sweetest human being alive and I love you like my own blood, but Naphthene’s tits, girl! It kills me how you refuse to deserve the respect I know you’re capable of earning. Aw, fuck me running, now you assholes’ve got me doing it.”

She savagely kicked a chunk of masonry from its millennia-old resting place.

“So…yeah,” Fross chimed awkwardly. “This here is a whole set of issues, isn’t it? I, uh, I’m pretty out of my element, too. Just like to add that I also love Teal and I dunno what to do about any of this, but if somebody does you can count on me.”

“Growth can’t really happen without pain,” Juniper murmured, chewing at her bottom lip. “Sometimes… I guess sometimes you have to try to cut in the right place, so it heals the right way.”

“Growth, like healing, is a process,” Toby added, nodding. “What’s important is that we will be here for each other. There are no magic solutions to things like this.”

Gabriel cleared his throat. “Actually…”

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15 – 19

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“Don’t make that face, I’m not saying anything about what any other woman can or should do. Everybody has a perfect right to be angry when some fool is leering.” Ruda pressed a hand to her chest, trying to put on a solemn expression through which a mischievous grin kept cracking. “All I’m saying is that I, for my money, don’t mind it.”

“If your next comment is that it’s actually a compliment…”

“Oh, bullshit, gross dudes are gross and we all know it. I’m a pragmatist above all, is my point, and I’ve noticed men are easily distracted. Especially the dumb ones who cause trouble. If some goon is starin’ at my bajongulars, he’s probably not doing anything I’ll actually need to put a stop to.”

Trissiny heaved a deep sigh. “Ruda, what did we discuss about you making up horrible new slang?”

“Hmm.” Ruda screwed up her face and tapped at her lips with a finger in a decent imitation of Tellwyrn. “Didn’t we decide you were a big ol’ stick in the mud?”

“Yeah, that sounds familiar.”

Now it was Ruda who side-eyed her roommate for a moment before returning her attention to the rocky trail up the mountainside. “Y’know, I’m not sure I like this new and improved you. Used to be I could make you all huffy and frustrated with just a comment. It was reliable, cheap entertainment.”

“The Thieves’ Guild, ladies and gentlemen,” Trissiny said airily. “Ruining your fun for eight thousand years.”

“Yeah, well, don’t get cocky, Shiny Boots. I bet I can still make you stammer and blush. Let’s see, wasn’t I at one point about to describe all the stuff I’m pretty sure Prince Sekandar wants to do with your legs and a crock of butter?”

“For somebody who cares so much about being the baddest girl in the party, it’s awfully bold for you to set up situations that end with me kicking your ass.”

Ruda actually stumbled.

“Wow, I see what you mean!” Fross chimed. “Trissiny never used to win these arguments.”

“Nobody won nothin’!” Ruda barked. “There was a rock! I’m still in this!”

“Sometimes, Ruda,” Shaeine said, projecting serenity like a cloud of perfume, “the only remaining victory is to bear defeat with the utmost grace.”

Ruda half-turned to squint irritably at her, risking another stumble on the uneven path. “You’re just taking advantage of the fact I won’t sucker-punch the most phlegmatic member of the group.”

“And thus my point is proven,” Shaeine said with a beatific smile.

“Shut up, Arquin,” Ruda grumbled, turning her back on the group and in particular his gales of laughter.

Trissiny, smiling, veered over and bumped her roommate lightly with her shoulder. Ruda jostled her back, and then they carried on in silence.

“I’m pretty sure we’re just about there,” said Toby, pointing. “Or is that merely a…random patch of forest in the middle of the mountains?”

Their guides said they were making excellent time through the crags of the Wyrnrange, which meant they should reach their destination at some point today. Evidently the mountains in general had been much quieter since the Conclave of the Winds had formed, but the paths leading to the Desolate Gardens were usually left alone by dragons. According to their guides, that was more out of respect for Ampophrenon the Gold, who led the Order of the Light that maintained the Gardens, than for any pilgrims who wanted to visit. Now, up ahead, a crown of greenery was suddenly visible peeking out from behind a jagged promontory.

“That’s no mere forest,” Sister Elaine replied, giving him a smile. The more personable of the two Order guides sent to escort them, she had mostly taken over interacting with the students while her counterpart, Brother Toraldt, had grown quieter all through the first day and had not actually spoken to them since they broke camp that morning. The dwarf had a very formal way of conducting himself and appeared put off by the banter and general tomfoolery which prevailed among a party that included all three living paladins. Elaine, a human woman who had the broad shoulders of a Legionnaire and clearly was not discomfited after a two-day mountain hike despite her lined face and mostly gray hair, was more laid back in temperament, as she demonstrated again by playing tour guide. “We are, indeed, on the final leg of this journey. What you see is the Great Tree itself, the only known offshoot of the World Tree which is hidden in the Deep Wild. In fact, I believe it is the physical evidence of Naiya’s only contribution to the well-being of mortal people. She sent this sapling in the custody of the dryad Rowan to permanently seal the breach where the great hellgate had been. The Great Tree grows out of what was once the most tainted spot upon this earth, and today is one of the most sacred.”

“I’ve been really looking forward to seeing this,” Juniper said pensively, her eyes fixed on the distant tree’s canopy. Despite the distraction, she seemed to have no trouble finding her footing upon the trail, loose scree and all. Juniper’s very gait had shifted over the summer; she had begun to step softly and deliberately, as if every step was a meditative act. At least, sometimes she did. When caught up in conversation or other distractions the dryad often slipped back into old habits.

“All that is one tree?” Gabriel said, craning his neck to peer upward, and then stumbling over a rock. “Wait, how close are we exactly?”

“That is one tree, Gabriel,” Elaine replied. “It’s not called the Great Tree for nothing, after all. And we are, in fact, not all that close. I’ve not taken a yardstick to it myself, obviously, but I’ve heard it said that the Great Tree doubles the height of the mountain upon which it stands.”

The procession continued more quietly up the last few miles of mountain pass, as the afternoon wore on and even until, finally, the sky began to redden subtly over the peaks to the west. Though they did talk, off and on, the students spent more of their time occupied in peeking around the twists of the ancient trail at the looming tree ahead, when they weren’t concentrating on where to put their feet. At any rate, the joking trailed off considerably, to the point that even Toraldt’s expression grew less disapproving.

He and Elaine remained up in the front, with Ruda and Trissiny alternately abreast of and right behind them, depending upon how wide a given stretch of the trail was. The rest of the students trailed along after, with Principia and Merry bringing up the rear, the latter sweating and somewhat out of breath. Legion physical standards notwithstanding, of the two of them climbing mountains in full armor, only one had elvish stamina.

They could see long before reaching its base that the Great Tree was well-named.

It was believable that it added the height again of the very mountain upon which it stood; very much like a mountain, it spread outward both above and below to form a solid base, its truly titanic root system seeming to thread over a space much wider than the mountain peak. By the time they passed around the final plateau which stood between them and their destination they were already beneath the outermost spread of the Tree’s leaves, and had long since begun to pass by the root system itself.

In fact, on the very last leg of their journey, they found themselves walking between a cliff wall on one side and the bulk of a huge root on the other. The root itself was practically a cliff in dimensions, arcing away to a height on their left that was above the crowns of some lesser trees could reach. Moreover, as they drew fully in sight of the Great Tree’s trunk and base, the path actually shifted until it was upon the root itself, at first partially and then entirely. An L-shaped divot had been cut out of the living wood, leaving a wall to one side and floor beneath, and making the transition seamless. Easier, in fact, as the bark provided good footing and there was no more loose scree upon which to stumble.

“Wait,” Juniper said suddenly, stopping and reaching over to run her fingers slowly along the rough surface of the root wall. “This…wasn’t cut.”

“The Great Tree gives us many blessings,” Elaine said with a smile. “The Order has never had to take an ax to her; the very idea would be abhorrent. She had obligingly grown in patterns that aid us in protecting the sanctity of this place.”

“So the tree did this voluntarily?” Ruda prodded the root with her toe. “Huh. Um, exactly how smart is this thing?”

“I understand you have journeyed both into the Crawl and the Golden Sea?” Elaine asked.

“We have,” Toby replied when no one else did after a pause.

“Then this will be familiar to you,” she said, still smiling. “The Tree does have an intelligence of her own, but a very…diffuse one. In ordinary circumstances, one does not communicate or connect with her at all. And when people have, they described the communion as quite unfathomable. Like talking to someone lightly asleep but still oddly reactive.”

“Sort of like a god,” Trissiny murmured.

That proved too much for Toraldt. “I would hardly suggest that a god of the Pantheon might have so unfocused an intelligence, General Avelea,” he said disapprovingly.

She turned to him with a deliberately mild expression. “It depends a lot upon the circumstances in which one meets them. I am speaking from experience. How many gods have you met, Brother?”

“We had a pretty interesting summer,” Gabriel added, grinning.

Toraldt frowned deeply, but he seemed more puzzled than annoyed; at any rate, he made no further comment.

“Well!” Sister Elaine cleared her throat. “On we go, then.”

The rest of their path was entirely along the conveniently flat surface of massive roots, first upon the one laid down in the canyon trail, and then climbing another which formed a neat bridge up to another plateau that afforded a splendid view of the Great Tree itself. This was clearly the main organizational center of the Desolate Gardens; the root-bridge deposited them in a broad square abutting the edge of the plateau upon one side, with a tall fountain in its center and a ring of weathered stone structures on the other edge. The group gave all that little attention, though, spreading out as soon as they had the room and turning to stare at the Tree which reared up on another flattened peak in the near distance.

Its height was difficult to guess at a glance, simply because they lacked a mental frame of reference for a tree that huge. The trunk rose directly behind the ruins of some ancient castle of black volcanic stone, now half-crumbled and seemingly held up as much by the colossal root system bracing it as by any engineering of its own.

“The Tree herself stands exactly where the Mouth once was,” Elaine said, stepping forward to one end of the line in which they arranged themselves to gaze out at the view. “Or at least, that is where she was planted. Ever since, she has grown in a shape to preserve that fortress; even her trunk itself expanded only toward the other side, to leave clear the space in what was once the courtyard. That is why the trunk seems oddly flat from this angle. Now, you may be assured this place is entirely free of infernal taint, but once upon a time, that fortress was raised by the legions of Hell itself, at Elilial’s own command. It was the citadel and first staging area from which the Third Hellwar was launched. The final battle occurred here, beginning in this very spot: this is the plateau where Lord Ampophrenon marshaled his forces for the last attack. In that courtyard he and those of his allies who survived the engagement confronted Elilial herself, and bargained with the lives of her own captured daughters to ensure her surrender and departure from this world, and the closure of the Mouth. The mortal hosts were not foolish enough to trust in her word alone to keep the gateway shut, of course. It was a rare time of cooperation, when humans, elves, and dwarves all lent their craft to the sanctification of this place, culminating in Rowan’s visit and the planting of the Great Tree. And there she stands to this day, making of what was once the world’s very center of corruption a place, now, of peace and purity.”

Silence fell after she finished speaking, though it held for only a few seconds.

Teal turned toward Shaeine, and the two exchanged a silent look laden with meaning. Teal took the drow’s hand and gently squeezed, then slowly shifted. As usual, Vadrieny rose to stand half a foot taller upon her colossal talons. Shaeine’s slender fingers looked even more delicate, wrapped around those huge black claws, but the archdemon only gave them another, impossibly gentle squeeze, then just as gently released her.

Then she spread her huge wingspan and launched herself skyward. In seconds she had soared away, arcing up and then down into the ruined courtyard of the ancient fortress, where she was lost to sight behind the roots and walls.

“Oh. Oh, dear,” Toraldt fretted. “I’m not sure that’s…”

“Vadrieny is a friend,” said Trissiny. “Now.”

“Can someone truly still be a person they once were, if they have no memory of it?” Juniper asked, staring after Vadrieny and absently scratching the crest of feathers atop Sniff’s head. “Choices make us who we are. As terrible as it must be to lose all of yours, it does mean you can become someone entirely new.”

“What do you think?” Toby asked quietly, stepping up next to Shaeine as she stooped to pick up F’thaan, who was yipping at the distant tree in agitation after Vadrieny’s departure. “Would she prefer to be alone?”

“They need to face this with only one another,” Shaeine said, stroking the little hellhound’s head until he quieted. “But…only for a time. I think that by the time I can reach them on foot, they’ll both want the company of family.”

“You’re going alone, then?” Trissiny asked.

Shaeine turned, her garnet-colored eyes darting across the group. Uncharacteristically, her white eyebrows drew together in a muted expression of consternation, one that would have been barely perceptible on most people but was practically glaring in contrast to her usual reserve.

“This is…difficult. For my people, in the traditions in which I am invested, concepts such as ‘family’ are defined most rigidly and with great formality. But…but to Teal, and to Vadrieny, you are all as precious as blood. I think… I believe they would want to have you nearby.” She hesitated, making a tiny noise as if clearing her throat, though of course Shaeine nur Ashaele d’zin Awarrion never betrayed such discomfiture in public. “Though the reverse of that is that we’ve all just hiked up the mountains for most of the day, and neither would blame you in the slightest if you decided to rest here, first.”

“We’d blame us,” Ruda said firmly.

“’zactly,” Gabriel agreed. “Well said.”

“You all right, June?” Toby asked. “Sorry, not to hover or anything, but the memory of you collapsing in the Sea is kind of burned into my eyes…”

“You’re a good dad, Toby,” the dryad said fondly. “Anyway, yeah, I’m fine. It’s running that does me in; steady movement as actually pretty comfortable. C’mon, our friends need us.”

“I…value all of you,” Shaeine said, still looking strangely uncertain. “Tremendously.”

Her mouth opened once more, as if she planned to continue, then she abruptly turned and stepped onto the root bridge again. The rest of them followed immediately, forming a neat line upon the narrow path and leaving their somewhat bemused escorts behind.

“Well!” Principia said brightly when even Fross’s glow had vanished over the edge of the cliff. “I guess that leaves us to settle in. Which is going to be done where, again?”

“Ah.” Elaine tore her eyes from the spot where the students disappeared. “Well, of course, the Desolate Gardens are meant to be a place of contemplation and spiritual retreat, not a place of comfort. The Order provides necessities for visiting pilgrims, but…not more. You may have noticed the structures behind us have doorways and windows, but neither wood nor glass. They are left that way deliberately. There is space to sleep, but it will be very much like camping. Fortunately, the young ones seemed quite comfortable with that yesterday.”

“That sounds absolutely perfect,” Principia assured her. “I always say too much comfort is bad for people, especially young people. That building over there open? Excellent. C’mon, Lang, let’s stow everybody’s gear and have a spot ready for whenever they get back.”

“I wouldn’t be altogether sure how soon that will be,” Elaine said, again frowning in the direction of the old fortress and the mighty tree which embraced it. “The journey to that spot in particular is… Well, it’s usually the final goal of pilgrims here, not the first. That place is at the center of the Great Tree’s own focus, and swirls with ancient power. Whatever they have come here to find, they will find it there.”

“Leave it to those kids to skip all the preliminary steps,” Merry grunted. “Not to mention leaving all their rucksacks here. I hope they don’t expect me to figure out which belongs to who.”

“Less whining, more hauling,” Prin said cheerfully. “On the double, corporal.”

“Let us help you with those,” Toraldt offered.

“Oh, that’s okay,” she said, already loading her arms with discarded supply bags. “You two’ve done the lion’s share of work getting us here; let a couple of troopers feel useful for a change.”

“How’d you like to feel useful enough for the both of us, LT?”

“What did I just say about whining?”

“Same thing you always say, so as I usual I assumed you didn’t mean it. Since you know it never stops the whining.”

“You’re lucky I find you so harmlessly, ineffectually amusing, Lang,” Principia rejoined, already trotting off toward one of the empty Order structures with her armload of bags. “Hell, you’re lucky anybody does.”

“Seriously, though, LT,” Merry said more quietly as they neared the building, passing out of earshot of their two Order guides. “Aren’t you concerned we’re getting a little…off-mission, here?”

“This is the mission,” Principia replied, stepping into the shadowed doorway. Beyond was an open common room with more dark doorways branching off. There was a fireplace, currently dark and cold but with wood stacked nearby. Old torches sat in iron sconces around the walls; unsurprisingly, there was not a trace of modern fairy lighting. The place was dim, in the little daylight that streamed through its open windows, but at least it was clean.

“Eugh,” Merry grunted, dropping her armload of the students’ belongings in an unceremonious heap. “What do you suppose passes for plumbing out here?”

“It’s astonishing to me how bloody spoiled a soldier on duty can be. A hundred years ago your first task on making camp would’ve been digging your own damn latrines.”

“Last Rock is the mission,” Merry said, resuming both the discussion and her more serious tone. “You might have noticed we’re now about thirty clicks beyond hell and gone from there, LT.”

“I think you underestimate the size of the initial success that was represented by Arachne not teleporting both of us into the sun. She explicitly threatened to toss me through a hellgate if I ever showed my face in Last Rock again.”

“And you still went there?” Merry’s eyebrows shot upward. “You know what’s infuriating? I honestly have never been able to figure out of if you plan everything twelve steps beyond everyone else, or are just reckless and have been lucky this far because it never occurs to anyone you even might be doing something as crazy as you always are. Either one explains you so perfectly.”

“It’s all about knowing your battleground and your enemy, Lang,” Principia said, turning a sly smile on her after depositing her own armful of knapsacks more carefully on the floor. “Arachne fully means those things when she threatens them, but by the time a year has passed she rarely cares enough to be bothered carrying them out. Honestly, the fact she doesn’t carry grudges like a normal elf is one of her more redeeming qualities. Anyway, this is the situation we’re in. This is what we had to do to establish relations with the University as the High Commander ordered, and so here we are.”

“You don’t think it’s significant that Tellwyrn’s first act was to send us as far from her University as she could?”

“This is nothing like as far as she could send us, Lang. We’re with one of her precious student groups, albeit the one that needs us least. Trust me, this is working. Sure, the manner of it isn’t what Rouvad wanted—or what I did—but in life as in war you rarely get what you’d like best. Victory comes from learning how to turn setbacks into opportunities. That’s the key. There’s always some way to take advantage of whatever mess befalls you, if you can only figure out how.”

Merry heaved a sigh, then crossed back to the doorway to peer out at the sunset. “Yeah? I dunno, Locke, it kinda seems like the opposite is happening. I’m sure you’ve noticed these kids appear to want you dead.”

“Do they?” Principia mused, her smile widening.

“It’s…weird.” Merry turned back to her with a frown. “I thought they seemed pretty relaxed about your mutual history in Puna Dara. But then the General and the drow were added to the mix and suddenly I was sure one of the girls was going to push you over a cliff on the way here.”

“Nothing so murderous, I assure you,” Principia said, now openly grinning. “Let me put it this way: they’re kids, I’m an authority figure—to my own surprise—and now they’ve picked up one of their number with an ax to grind. It’s actually a good sign that they’re close enough to absorb one another’s attitudes that quickly, and revealing how they all pick up on Shaeine’s dislike in particular. Even Trissiny, who I’d have thought would step into the role of leader, both because of her own personality and because Hands of Avei generally do. And yet, here we are! Learning fascinating things.”

“Things that might still get you pushed off a cliff.”

“It won’t come anywhere near that.” Principia shook her head. “They’ll find a way to get their own back and feel vindicated. And in fact, I intend to help them.”

“You?” Merry put on a shocked face. “Embrace humility? I will believe that when I see it. Wait, actually, on second thought I might not.”

“You’ve never actually seen me deserve a comeuppance, Lang,” Principia said mildly. “This may not be the kind of thing you’re accustomed to expecting from me, but punishment can be oddly therapeutic when you actually have it coming. We all crave a kind of balance with the world around us, and suffer when we’ve been pushed out of it, even by our own actions. And besides, the revenge of incompetent adversaries can be very profitable!”

“I keep forgetting how absolutely crazy you Eserites are,” Merry grunted.

“Think about it: if there’s some kind of drow honor thing at stake here, it’ll be something formal and complicated. Everything with Narisians is formal and complicated. A way will surface for me to offer some kind of proper amends to Shaeine and her family—and that will form a connection between us. Any connection can be exploited, Lang. It’s like I said: from setbacks, opportunity.”

Merry gave her an openly skeptical look, but didn’t argue any further, just turning back to the door and its view of the Great Tree, where their charges were now on their way to meet, apparently, their destiny.

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