“I feel like I’m very bad at this,” Iris grunted, shoving stalks of tallgrass aside out of her face. “This is like the Golden Sea trip, but…worse.”
“How worse?” Maureen asked more softly. She was walking in front, creating a little furrow in the tallgrass, which helped Iris navigate, but also resulted in stalks constantly whipping back at her.
“I don’t know, I’m just grousing. Are you sure this is necessary?”
“I’m not sure o’ much, truth be told, not with regard t’this situation here. I know me tactics, though. What we’re doin’ is the general shape o’ the right thing. Just wish I could tell whether th’warnin’ got through, an’ how much good it did…”
“Well, we could tell if we went back to town…”
“I know, I know.”
Maureen stopped, turning to peer up at her. “Can ye see anything? Any sign o’ progress?”
Iris turned, shading her eyes with a hand to study the distant town. They were moving around its periphery at just beyond the normal range of human earshot—at Maureen’s suggestion, close enough that the drow or other elves could find them quickly, but not near enough anybody—or anything—was likely to stumble across them by accident. Her view was impeded but not blocked by the tallgrass, which was just about eye height to her. The mountain soared skyward in plain view, of course, but Last Rock itself was little more than a collection of slate roofs.
“Not really,” she reported. “I can’t see people, or…anything. Just the tops of buildings. Um…wait, actually I have an idea. Can you find us a…is it called a clearing if it’s grass and not trees? Something relatively flat where I have some room to work.”
“Can I find us a clearing?” Maureen asked pointedly. “Pardon me fer pointin’ it out, but you’re the one with the view up there.”
Iris heaved a sigh. “Right. Sorry. It’s just…you’re good at tracking and wilderness craft, I thought you might be able to…I dunno.”
“I think you’re thinkin’ of elves,” the gnome said with a wry smile.
“Trust me, that’s not what I’m thinking of,” Iris muttered. “But anyway, while we’re stopped, surely this isn’t the whole plan? We can’t just run around in the prairie forever.”
“We could run around till it blows over a mite, aye, but that ain’t the plan, no. Just tryin’ to avoid blunderin’ into any beasties till we can figure out what’s what. I’ll admit we’re at a wee bit of a disadvantage in that regard, ‘less somethin’ really interestin’ happens in town…”
“Right. Okay. Then that brings me back to my idea.” Iris turned in a slow circle, seeing nothing but the town and mountain in one direction and infinite grass everywhere else. “Well, I don’t think anybody actually owns this grass, and if they do, I’ll just owe them an apology. We’re not gonna find a clear spot any time soon, I bet, so I’ll have to make one. C’mere, please, and stand close to my legs.”
“What’re ye up to, then?” Maureen asked a little nervously, obeying. She pressed her back against Iris’s side, where her head barely came up to her roommate’s hip.
“In theory, nothing that would hurt a person, but I don’t like to take risks.”
She breathed in slowly, deeply, straightening her spine and letting her eyes drift closed. After a moment’s concentration, Iris folded both her hands in front of her as if in prayer, and held that pose.
“Um,” Maureen whispered, peering up at her. “Is somethin’ supposed to—”
She broke off with a squeak as Iris suddenly dropped her left hand to her side and made a slashing motion with her right.
In front of them, a wide swath of tallgrass tumbled to the ground, neatly severed in an arc about an inch from the topsoil.
Iris opened her eyes, and then grinned. “Oh, that was even cleaner than I hoped! I’ll have to remember that one.”
“Remember? Y’mean you improvised that? I thought fae magic was all…rituals and components, aye?”
“Not all. There’s a big place for those things.” Iris stepped forward and knelt in the flattened space she had created, where the fallen tallgrass made a serviceable carpet. “But simple elemental work, such as using pure air like I just did…well, it’s more like building a relationship. Get close enough to the spirits, and they recognize you. Befriend them, and they’ll sometimes do you quick little favors.”
“Spirits, huh.” Maureen glanced nervously around, hovering at the border of the cleared space. “What sort? About how many are there, y’know, hereabouts? Helpful against demons, y’think?”
“It depends.” Iris had reached into her pocket pulled out a vial of dirt, which she sprinkled in a careful circle about the width of a dinner plate, then began adding pinches of other things taken from smaller pouches also concealed in her dress, which clearly had bag-of-holding spells on its pockets. “Some places…old places or sacred ones, mostly…have their own spirits. Others…well, with elementals, they kind of don’t exist until you pay attention to them. A discrete elemental you have to sort of make, but less formal kinds aren’t so much an objective part of the environment, but kind of an expression of your interaction with it.”
“So…these spirits are inside yer own ‘ead…an’ ye still ‘ave to sweet-talk ’em.”
“I dunno about you, but the inside of most people’s heads doesn’t make a lot of sense,” Iris muttered. “Gimme a minute, I have to concentrate on this part.”
She closed her eyes, and began making motions with her hands that were reminiscent of a potter shaping clay on a wheel. Fittingly, the dirt circle she had cast on the ground began to rise and stretch, slowly forming itself into a shallow earthen bowl. Iris let out a soft sigh once this was done and opened her eyes again, then reached in and with great delicacy extended one finger toward its center.
Her fingertip touched a point in the middle, about the height of the brim, and ripples spread out from the empty air. Just like that, it was no longer empty, but filled with impossibly clear water, visible only where it shimmered from her touch.
“Now that is a right nifty trick,” Maureen said, creeping closer.
“That’s the easy part,” Iris muttered, shifting from her kneeling position to sit cross-legged on the ground in front of the bowl. “Now I look for information. This isn’t like arcane scrying; it’s not a machine that does what I tell it to. But I can ask it for answers, and get a sense for the general…shape of things. To answer your question, witchcraft is very good against demons. Asking about demons is one of the more reliable things; the spirits sense them easily, and don’t like them. Let me just focus for a little bit.”
Maureen studied her face, and then the gently rippling surface of the bowl, and then her face again. Iris simply frowned in concentration; the surface of the bowl continued to ripple, revealing nothing except, apparently, to its creator. The gnome opened her mouth once, then thought better of speaking, and took a judicious half-step backward to give her room.
“It wasn’t just the one,” Iris whispered, eyes fixed on the bowl. “They’re…all around the town. Encircling it. Except…” She suddenly flung one arm out, pointing. “There!”
Maureen followed her finger, and winced. “Um… You’re pointin’ at the whole shebang over there, Iris.”
Iris blinked, and looked up. “…oh. Right, yes. Sorry. I meant, there are demons around the town except at the point where the mountain’s base touches the outskirts.”
“Aye…stands t’reason,” Maureen agreed, nodding slowly. “I doubt the Sleeper wants t’risk gettin’ Tellwryn into the middle o’ whatever the hell he’s doin’ now.”
“Yes. And, by the way, speaking of the Sleeper.” Iris made an expansive gesture with both hands, and her bowl collapsed, disintegrating back into a ring of dirt, now somewhat unevenly distributed after its little adventure. Of the ephemeral liquid which had been in the bowl, there was no sign. “Witches and warlocks…well, all other things being equal, the witches usually have the advantage, as you well know, but for that very reason a powerful enough warlock can almost always tell when there’s fae magic being used in the vicinity. So if the Sleeper happens to be nearby and paying attention…”
“Say no more,” Maureen said, already moving. “Let’s shake a leg.”
“Right behind you.” Iris rose and set off after her, and in seconds they were again proceeding through the tallgrass, making a wide arc around the north of the town toward the point where it abutted the foot of the mountain. This time, the human pushed ahead and led the way, the better to be able to navigate now that they weren’t simply proceeding away from Last Rock.
“This is good,” Maureen said to herself as they walked. “Aye, we can work with this. We get t’where we’re not bargin’ into a demon blockade, an’ we can get a look an’ decide whether t’jump in or retreat again.”
“I’m not retreating any more,” Iris said grimly. “I think you were right, though, it would’ve been a mistake to tackle that ourselves, alone. But once we make the town, we can link up with the others. There are probably students down there, plus the Rockies and those drow. They aren’t helpless, and they’ll be even better off with us.”
“Aye,” Maureen said, frowning worriedly. She chewed her lower lip in thought, lost for a moment in her own worries. “Uh. Look, what if—”
Maureen, thinking rather than looking, walked right into Iris’s knee with a grunt. “Oof! What’s that about? See somethin’?”
“No,” Iris whispered. She had frozen in place, and now looked back and forth frantically. “I—no. Nothing! I don’t see…”
“What’re ye on about?” Maureen demanded, growing increasingly nervous.
“The town! The mountain, it’s—there’s nothing there! Everything’s gone!”
“What?! How’s that possible? Lemme up!”
Iris, moving slowly, bent down, offering a hand. Maureen was far more nimble, and swarmed up the human like a squirrel, eliciting several grunts of protest before getting herself situated on Iris’s shoulders.
They were standing, alone, in the apparent middle of an infinite sea of golden tallgrass.
“Bollocks,” Maureen declared after a period of stunned silence. “No, this is…this is wrong. It can’t be like this. What do the spirits say?”
“They’re not the town gossip, I can’t just…” Iris turned in a slow circle, not minding the way Maureen grabbed her hair for purchase. “…oh, no. I just had a thought. Exactly…how close to the mountain is the Golden Sea?”
“No, no, that’s not it,” Maureen said, shaking her head vigorously. “I don’t think we were that close, but anyway, doesn’t matter. Remember ‘ow the geas works? We’re initiates o’ the Unseen University. Any time we’re near the edge, we’ll come out right were we can see th’mountain.”
“Unless it shifted us farther into the Sea…”
“It doesn’t! It doesn’t work like that! Professor Ezzaniel said!”
“Did you ever talk to the sophomores about their trip?”
Maureen started to shout something exasperated, but broke off, gritted her teeth for a moment, and replied in a calmer tone. “I did, yes, a couple times. Why?”
“They had trouble with centaurs,” Iris said woodenly. “When Teal and Trissiny told me the story…they said centaurs move the Sea. They’re warlocks. They reach through to the Darklands on the other side of the dimensional divide, and move that, and the Golden Sea shifts in response. They said it doesn’t like that, and retaliates eventually, but it works, at least at first.”
“Oh, kick me up the stairs,” Maureen groaned, pressing a hand over her eyes. “Yer thinkin’ a certain other warlock may’ve picked up that trick?”
“I also asked Trissiny about the hellgate incident last year,” Iris said, her tone growing increasingly grim. “The hellgate had to have been opened from both sides. The Darklands on the other side were shifted so there was a hiszilisk hive practically next door to the campus. The Sleeper has to have been the warlock who did that, so we know he can do this.”
There was silence, again, while Iris turned in another slow circle, just for hope’s sake. Nothing came of it; they were still surrounded by nothing but tallgrass, waving gently under the setting sun, stretching away to a perfectly circular horizon.
“Okay,” Maureen said at last. “It’s…it’s not all bad, then, aye? We can…we can ‘ead downhill, that’ll take us back outta the Sea eventually. No matter ‘ow far in we are. Yer a witch, I’m a gnome, we can survive outdoors fer a bit. We’ll come out near the campus. Most important, the Sleeper can’t get to us ‘ere. Nobody can navigate in the Sea. Even Tellwyrn can’t teleport in an’ outta here, Ezzaniel warned us about that, remember? Now which way’s downhill, can ye tell?”
“Maureen,” Iris said wearily, “someone can navigate in the Sea. We’ve already established—”
A sudden breeze blew over them, disturbing the tallgrass, and with it, a shadow drifted over the golden stalks all around, as if cast by a cloud scudding by overhead.
There were no clouds.
“Right. Yep. That’s on me, I’ll own that,” Maureen said glumly. “Just had to open me mouth.”
Another gust of wind blew, accompanied by another shadow. This time, the hissing sound of the air was accompanied by the soft, yet unmistakable, rhythm of breath. It fell silent, then came again, blowing a third sourceless shadow across them, and in the wind was a clear, sibilant laugh.
“Get down,” Iris said tersely. The gnome immediately pushed herself off, leaping to the ground. The moment she had, Iris dropped to her own knees, bending forward amid the tallgrass and working her hands stubbornly through the thick clusters of its bases, seeking dirt.
A deeper shadow fell over them. The sun was setting in the west, casting the sky and the grass around in deepening red; now, something suddenly stood between them and it, creating a small eclipse.
Maureen swallowed heavily. “Iris, I don’t think hidin’ is gonna work…”
Iris had screwed her face up in concentration, whispering something constantly to herself. Her fingers found purchase between the stands of tallgrass, sinking as deep as she could force them into the loam.
Another breath of shadow washed across them. The laugh that accompanied it was deeper, huskier. To their west, only yards distant, only hidden by the thickness of the grass around them, there came the crunching thump of something very large taking a step.
“Iris,” Maureen hissed frantically, pressing herself against the human’s side and shaking her. “Get a grip! We need yer magic here!”
“Please,” Iris whispered, clenching her teeth as if in pain. “Please, please, please—”
Another step. Then another. The sky darkened, faster than the mere sunset could allow for. There came a deeper chuckle, accompanied by yet another footstep, laid down by something larger than a human, crushing a swath of grass beneath it.
“That’s not helping!” Maureen squeaked, jostling Iris as forcibly as she could, to no apparent effect. “Iris, please!”
“Please!” Iris echoed frantically, pushing her hands deeper into the dirt. “Please please…”
The voice was at once deep as a dragon’s and breathy, brushing lightly across them like another breath of the wind. It was followed by a rumble of deliberately sinister laughter.
Maureen’s squeal of sheer terror was muffled only by Iris’s shoulder, against which she had pressed her face.
Suddenly, Iris’s head snapped up and she opened her eyes. A desperate breath escaped her, and then a final whisper.
The world wrenched.
Maureen squawked as she was bucked right off the ground as if by an earthquake. Innate agility and early childhood training took over, and she landed nimbly on her feet despite her panic, quickly casting around for friend and foe alike.
She was, once again, alone. No sign of Iris, nor of the shadow falling over them.
“Oh, no,” she groaned. “Not—”
The approaching sound of hoofbeats coming at a flat-out gallop made her dive back to the ground with a wail, covering her head with her arms.
The horse skidded to a stop nearby, snorting, and at the familiar voice, the gnome raised her head again in desperate hope.
“Maureen!” Gabriel called once more, while Whisper whinnied and pawed at the dirt. “I heard your voice! Where are you? I can’t see a thing in this crap. Is Iris with you?”
“Gabriel!” She bounded upright and lunged in the direction of his voice. He was closer than she’d expected, and she found herself shooting directly underneath the horse. “Gabe! Down ‘ere!”
“Oh, thank the gods,” he said, swinging a leg over Whisper’s back and dropping heavily to the ground, staggering slightly on landing. “Are you okay? Are you alone? Did you meet any demons?”
“Never mind that, ‘ow’d ye find us? Didja ‘ave to come far into the Sea?”
Gabriel paused in the act of drawing Ariel to slash tallgrass out of his way, frowning at her. “What? Into the Golden Sea, you mean? We’re not nearly that close to it, the border’s gotta be half a mile north of the town.”
“The…” She stared up at him in dawning horror, then spun around. She was far too short to see any sign of Last Rock through the thick tallgrass, but the mountain itself reared up, unmistakable and unavoidable at that distance.
It took a long moment of silent staring for understanding to crash down on her.
“Oh, Iris. Oh, no.”
The witch straightened up slowly, her expression resolute and calm, and carefully dry-washed her hands, brushing dirt off her fingers without getting any on her white dress. In silence, she watched the Sleeper come.
One slow, plodding step at a time, he approached, his form blotting out the sunset. He towered over her, fully encased in armor formed of scintillating shadow, so thick it was effectively a second, much larger body. The bruise-colored figure would have been taller and burlier than Scorn. Spiky growths protruded from the crown and shoulders, like the natural defenses of some grotesque beetle. His eyes were two pinpricks of flame within an otherwise featureless mask.
The Sleeper stopped, flexing enormous, clawed hands at his sides. He was tall enough they were visible to her through the upper reaches of the tallgrass.
“Oooonnnly enough power to save one?” His voice was as obviously obscured as his body, and as melodramatic, hidden within layers of sibilance and reverberation. At least, after the first word, he seemed to give up on the deliberately drawn-out delivery he had used to taunt Maureen. “Noble. Brave. My compliments.”
“Fine,” she whispered, flexing her own fingers at her sides.
“Pleasant dreams, little witch,” the Sleeper mocked, ponderously raising one massive hand toward her, palm out.
The sleeping curse that had defied warlocks and archmages alike stretched across the space between them.
Iris raised her own hand and caught it.
Out of thin air came form, as pure magic took on a shape, an impossibly complex structure of crystalline fractals the shade of amethysts. The curse immediately splintered and began to fracture as its non-infernal elements spun out of it suddenly frozen structure, arcane and shadow magic spinning away in little puffs of mist and light. The remainder shattered, dust and inert shards tumbling to the ground between the stalks of grass.
The Sleeper lost some of his melodrama in sheer surprise, rearing backward in shock and then having to stagger to catch his balance, apparently unused to moving so suddenly in that massive form.
Iris bared her teeth in a snarl. “Fine.”
He recovered, raised a hand again, and hurled a more conventional shadowbolt at her.
She slapped it out of the way, sending the blast of dark magic into the ground nearby, and flung another right back at him.
The Sleeper was less adroit in his movements; the bolt struck him dead in the center of his massive chest, though it had little effect on the thick armor. He staggered backward again, but recovered and gesticulated.
Tallgrass burst into flames as a summoning circle sprang up directly between them. The creature which rose up from it was a lopsided amalgamation of tentacles and pincers, covered in overlapping plates of chitin. It raised several limbs, each tipped with either claws or waving tendrils, emitted a burbling noise, and charged at Iris. The demon was almost as tall as the armored Sleeper; each of its footsteps shook the earth.
She made a grasping motion with one fist, seizing a handful of reality and wrenching a small hole in it.
A ripple of vibration and noise blasted out from the tiny rift, the ear-splitting sound of existence itself shrieking in pain, and a gout of absolutely pure and intensely concentrated infernal magic blazed forth.
The demon was adapted to infernal magic, of course; all its kind were inherently resistant to it. But nothing could have stood up to that blast of pure entropy. The creature exploded with the force of a bomb, not a single piece larger than a mote of dust surviving, most projected away with a speed that sent them half a mile before either combatant could blink.
The Sleeper hesitated only an instantly longer, then turned and bolted.
Shadows swelled around his huge form, but before they could thicken, another screaming rent in the fabric of creation spread open directly in front of him. Tentacle-like tendrils of purple shadow lashed out from the rift, grasping at nothing and sweeping away the energy of his attempted shadow-jump. More coiled around his huge limbs, then still more, all tightening, pulling… The impenetrable armor groaned in protest, and began to crack.
He let out a roar of sheer frustration, and a ripple of white-hot hellfire pulsed out in all directions, reducing a perfect circle around him to ash. The rift endured, pulsing angrily, but the tentacles of darkness were blasted away.
The Sleeper spun back around, drawing back one arm, and hurled an orb of blazing destruction in the direction of Iris.
She caught the pumpkin-sized fireball with one hand and chucked it dismissively over her shoulder. The impact behind her caused a shockwave that should have hurled her through the air, but it succeeded only in ruffling her dress. Her form was limned in shadow, not armored like his, but clearly protected with infernal magic, despite the well-known fact that infernal magic had no protective application.
The blackened ground around them served as a perfect arena for the two arch-warlocks.
The Sleeper took a step back, then leaned toward her, clearly uncertain whether to fight or flee.
Iris bared her teeth again, and raised her hands. Fire and shadow coalesced out of the air around her, streamers of it shifting forward, weaving into a pattern that promised carnage and unimaginable pain.
“Have it your way,” she snarled, and unleashed Hell.