It was only seconds before a group of a dozen or so buzzing demons peeled off from the swarm, diving directly toward the freshmen.
Trissiny spoke rapidly. “Hiszilisks have a compound hive mind. The whole swarm doesn’t act as one, but smaller groups can. Keep your mind on the group, and don’t let yourself focus on an individual. They’ll try to make you do that, bait you into being distracted so the others can get you from behind.”
“Right,” said Fross. “Goddamn demons. Got it.”
“Practice situational awareness, stay in circle formation and don’t let them flank us or get behind anybody,” Trissiny said tensely. “Here they come.”
The group of demons had descended close enough to be much more than specks now; still somewhat vague with distance, it was apparent that Vadrieny’s earlier description had been accurate. The hiszilisks flew on thrumming, wasp-like wings and had stubby tails tipped in hooked stingers. They possessed only four limbs, though, which despite being proportioned somewhat like an insect’s ended in lizard-like claws. Their faces, topped with antennae, were oddly humanoid, notwithstanding the addition of huge compound eyes and snapping mandibles extending from their jaws to cover their mouths.
As they descended the shrill whine of their wings was augmented by a raspy screeching from their open mouths. The group approached at a steep angle that would have overshot their target, except that they abruptly dived with uncanny synchronization, plummeting almost straight downward.
They ran straight through a sudden puff of icy mist; their orderly dive-bombing was transformed into an ungainly tumble as wings froze over. The entire flock smacked into a silver shield that slammed into place above the group, keening and chittering unintelligibly. It clearly burned them on contact; they thrashed in pain, only about half their number managing to get back aloft, the others twitching and smoking against the shield. None of them got far. A second barrier rose above the silver one, this one golden and completely diffuse, more a mist than a wall. It rose upward, catching the demons as they tried to escape and causing them to burst actively into flame. All but one finally fell, plummeting down to land with their smoldering cousins against the barrier.
The survivor, the largest of the group, retreated upward a few yards, screaming furiously down at them.
The golden glow vanished, and directly below him, a circular hole appeared in the silver shield.
The hiszilisk screamed and dived straight at it, trailing soot. It plowed right into a bolt of lightning from Gabriel’s wand. Sparking, smoking, and now tumbling aimlessly, the creature hit the ground in the middle of their circle and lay there, legs twitching and charred wings still trying to buzz. It lurched to one side, snapping its mandibles at Teal’s leg.
Trissiny planted a boot in its neck, holding it down, and Ruda impaled the demon through the center of its body with her rapier. Finally, its struggles ceased.
The hole in the shield closed, and the entire thing tilted sideways, sloughing off the pile of burning demons, before finally winking out. They fell to lie in a smoking heap on the grass beside the students, not a one so much as twitching. Juniper grabbed the last one by its stinger and casually heaved it over to join them; she overshot the mark, sending the corpse spinning off to impact one of the columns in front of the cafeteria.
“And that is how it’s done,” Trissiny said with grim satisfaction.
“Let’s save some of the fun for those of us with swords, yeah?” Ruda said, grinning. “I don’t think that last one counted as a kill.”
“I suspect you will have plenty of opportunity,” Shaeine said.
“I feel kinda bad saying it, since I didn’t really help that time,” Juniper said with a huge beaming smile, “but we’re kinda awesome, aren’t we?”
“Nobody get cocky,” Toby warned. “Never around demons, that’s how they get you. Stay sharp, we seem to have drawn some attention to ourselves.”
The swarm was diverging, various groups descending gradually toward different parts of the campus, others continuing to circle above as if looking for something. None of them appeared to be in any great hurry—except for those which had clearly spied the students. As they watched, two smaller swarms honed in on them, one swinging out wide from across the campus and coming at a nearly horizontal angle, a second heading almost straight downward at them over the portal.
“Gabriel, Fross, Toby,” Trissiny pointed with her sword at the hiszilisks coming from the side, “soften those up before they reach us. Toby, make a shield if any get to melee range. Shaeine, hit that group above. Don’t just block them, smack them. Try to get them dazed and out of the air.”
Nobody offered any argument or discussion, but moved swiftly to obey, changing positions around the group to have the line of sight they needed. In the next second, Gabriel was blasting lightning bolts and cleaner beams of white light into the oncoming demons, augmented by more lightning expelled by Fross. Toby held himself at the ready, waiting until they came close enough for him to control a light shield effectively. Shaeine, with Teal holding her shoulders gently, executed her command perfectly. A silver shield raced upward, impacting the swarm as it dived at them; the force with which they hit apparently stunned the entire group, actually sending several tumbling straight upward from the blow. The entire cluster fell in all directions, smoking and flailing. The silver shield remained mobile, lashing back and forth to slap any which looked to be regaining their wings.
“Excellent!” Trissiny said firmly. “All right, any who make it to the ground will regroup to come at us as one unit; let them, it’s a lot easier to hit them while they’re massed than with them flying around everywhere.”
In fact, none of the first group survived; Gabriel and Fross had so decimated them that buzzing into Toby’s golden shield destroyed the only three which had survived to that point. True to Trissiny’s prediction, however, the demons that plummeted to the ground held off, reorganizing themselves in front of the observatory tower rather than charging directly.
“How’s everyone doing on energy?” Trissiny asked, facing the assembling hiszilisks but keeping her eyes moving in case more groups honed in on them.
“I am not tired.”
“So far, so good!”
“All right,” the paladin said. “Toby, give us a thin, diffuse shield to soften ’em up as they charge. Ruda, Juniper, to the front with me, we’ll take these and give our casters a break. Gabe, behind us, shoot down any that try to flank. Here we go!”
It went beautifully, the demons buzzing obligingly into the golden glow Toby threw up in their path. Screaming, they tumbled into the ground, their forward momentum keeping them rolling right to the foot of the freshman formation. Juniper kicked the first to arrive, hard enough that it flew back over the heads of its compatriots in three pieces. The next managed to recover themselves enough to actually attack, but one paused to scream menacingly at them and received a rapier thrust directly in its open mouth. The third hit Trissiny’s shield; she pushed it back and lopped off its head before it could regain its balance. Two survivors did indeed attempt to circle around them, one falling to Gabriel’s wand. Fross froze the second, which had successfully used the students for cover to avoid his fire. Ruda stepped forward and neatly flicked the tip of her blade through its throat before it could get its wings working properly again.
“Fish in a barrel,” she said, grinning.
“Does anyone actually do that?” Gabriel asked. “Shoot fish in a barrel?”
She blinked at him. “…huh. Now that you ask, I can’t figure a reason why somebody would.”
“Focus!” Trissiny said sharply. “More incoming. General formation, defensive stances. Shaeine, make us a choke point. Ruda, up here with me. June, I need you to support Shaeine. Boost her energy if she tires, like you practiced.”
A silver dome appeared above them, but with a wedge-shaped section missing, like a cake with a slice cut out. Trissiny and Ruda stepped up into the breach, Fross hovering above their heads.
At least five separate groups of hiszilisks had come swarming down on them, buzzing furiously around the shield where there wasn’t room to attack the opening. And attack they did, so furiously that the press of bodies deprived the rest of space to push through.
Trissiny wedged herself forward into the gap, glowing furiously and laying about with her blade and shield equally. Ruda held position just behind, her nimble rapier lashing to to stab any attackers who made it past the paladin. Fross unleashed blasts of ice, lighting and explosive blue orbs of pure arcane energy, blowing back demons and felling them in considerable numbers.
Not considerable enough. As the pitched battle dragged on, more and more hiszilisks zeroed in on them, pressing at the barrier. Toby was spinning in a slow circle, having cast a wall of diffuse golden light that he dragged around and around outside Shaeine’s bubble, mowing down the demons that clawed at it from all sides. They burned, screamed and faltered as the orbiting cloud washed over them, some perishing beneath it, but more always came. Sparks began to fly from the impacts of claws and stingers on all sides of the shield; Shaeine was gritting her teeth in concentration, her expression very nearly one of pain. Juniper had shouldered Teal aside and wrapped her arms around the drow’s shoulders from behind, holding onto her; there was no visible exchange of magic, but Shaeine was nonetheless holding up the shield under enormous pressure, far better than she’d ever managed before.
“This can’t last,” Gabriel shouted. He held both wands at the ready, but had no avenue of attack except through Ruda and Trissiny. “If Shaeine wears herself out, we’re screwed!”
“Step back,” Teal ordered, moving into the center of the circle; he obeyed, crossing to the wall opposite Trissiny’s glow.
There was barely space within for Vadrieny’s wings, but she flared them outward nonetheless, grazing the silver shield on two sides. It seemed there was a momentary lull in the hiszilisks’ attack at the archdemon’s appearance. Then she threw back her head, flexed her claws outward, and screamed, and all doubt was removed.
The enormous swarm broke, buzzing away in all directions a lot faster than they had arrived. In seconds, the students were left surrounded by smoking corpses, piled into a chest-high drift in front of the opening and littering the grass on all sides.
Finally the bubble collapsed and Shaeine slumped backward against Juniper.
“I’ve got her,” the dryad said as Vadrieny jerked compulsively toward her. “Don’t touch, you’ll lose form if you grab me.”
“I thought these demons weren’t in Elilial’s pocket?” Gabriel said, still scanning the skies. For the moment, the swarm seemed unwilling to approach them again. “Wasn’t that the whole problem here? How come they listen to Vadrieny now?”
“Coyotes don’t answer to the bear, either,” said Trissiny. “Doesn’t mean they want to try charging it. Shaeine, are you all right?”
“Tired,” the drow said, gently pulling herself upright and out of Juniper’s grasp. “Not burning yet, but I cannot do that again tonight. I suggest we find some physical cover before engaging again.”
“What’s our endgame here, Trissiny?” Toby asked. “They just keep coming. Even if we get set up to survive a long siege like that one, what good does that do? No telling how many of these have already headed out to who knows where.”
“Which is why we can’t rely on Vadrieny except in a crisis like that; scattering them is a long-term defeat. For now, we trust that the gods have a plan,” Trissiny said firmly. “And that is not a religious platitude; this is all on their orders and we don’t have a better option right now. The astronomy tower can be entered from above, but its lobby will have only two access points, the front door and the stairwell. Shaeine, if we hole up in there, can you block off the stairs so we can defend the door?”
“That will be much less exhausting, yes.”
“All right, let’s move—”
The sound that emerged from the portal wasn’t quite a roar. It was like a breath, almost like a whisper—except, like a roar, it was powerful enough to shake the ground and the very air around them. It almost wasn’t a sound; there was something more to it, as if it was resonating across more than physical space. As one, the students looked up at the portal, just in time to see what began to emerge.
“What is that?” Ruda whispered, too stunned even to curse.
“That,” Trissiny said flatly, “is a good reason to keep two paladins and their allies on site.”
The enchantments powering the vehicle were designed for pulling entire caravans, not propelling a single car under full thrust. It screamed along the Rail line at a speed that could only charitably be called “unsafe.” The Rail glowed a furious blue beneath it, and where it passed there were not only sparks but flashes of lightning. As the car rounded the final long curve approaching Last Rock, its emergency inhibitor charms activated, causing the Rail to gleam nearly white with the volume of arcane power being used. Sparks flew in a wide fan to its right, and the car actually began twisting slightly off-center.
With a brilliant flash and a bang that echoed across the plains like rolling thunder, the lead car finally tore loose from the enchantments binding it to the Rail. The Rail line itself snapped at the point of breakage, its two halves twisting away like rearing serpents and spraying sparks and arcs of lightning in all directions. The tallgrass burst alight in a dozen places.
The car itself was flung forward, tumbling end-over-end through the air like a stone hurled from a catapult on a course that would have sent it smashing into the middle of the town. It righted itself midair, however, slowing dramatically, until it drifted lightly the last dozen yards of its journey and settled to the ground next to Last Rock’s Rail platform so delicately that the nearby tallgrass was not even disturbed.
Lacking the support of the enchanted Rail line on which it was meant to rest, it immediately toppled over on its side.
The hatch burst open and Professor Tellwyrn bounded nimbly out, landing on the platform and straightening her vest. “Offhand I can think of a dozen ways to improve the performance of that vehicle,” she muttered. “Ah, well. Any landing you walk away from, as they say.”
A figure emerged at the hatch, dragged itself weakly over the lip and tumbled to the ground.
“Earth!” Rook gasped, pausing to actually kiss the dirt. “Sweet, blessed ground! I will never leave you again. Pleh, blah,” he added, spitting out loam and wiping his mouth.
“Remind me never to get in anything with you again, Professor,” Finchley added shakily, pausing astride the hatch to give Moriarty a hand up.
“Oh, you’re fine, you drama queens,” Tellwyrn said disparagingly. “I made certain of that. Pull yourselves together, this night is going to get harder before it gets easier.”
She strode to the edge of the platform and stood, fists on her hips, staring up at the peak of the mountain. Above the campus, swirling black specks swarmed in all directions. Behind her, the three soldiers finally straggled up.
“Oh, fuck me,” Rook whispered, staring up at the distant demons.
Tellwyrn grunted. “The time for that was before all hell broke loose. Now we focus.” She hopped down from the platform, disdaining the stairs, and strode forward into the town.
Rook snorted as he and the others followed. “Well, it’s not like that was on the table, anyhow.” “How would you know? You never tried.”
He missed a step. “Wh—you’re not… Wait, that could actually…?”
Tellwyrn glanced over her shoulder, grinning. “Too late now.”
Rook sighed heavily, shoulders slumping. “You’re a bad person, Professor Tellwyrn.”
“Mm hm. Whine more, women love that.”
“Professor,” Moriarty said hesitantly, “I’m not entirely sure why you wanted us along for this.”
“Because I need my faculty riding herd on those damn kids. Who knows what else they’ll come up with; I’ve already had one pry open a hellgate and the entire freshman class do this bullshit. All it’ll take is for one more disaster to happen in the middle of a major city and I’ll never get the Imperials off my butt. What we need to do here is close that damn portal, which means somebody has to go through it to work the other side.”
“Not you,” she said acidly. “I will see to that. Luckily two of the little asshats up there are arcanists and three are light-wielders, so assuming they can follow simple instructions, they can handle it from this end. But with part of the group doing that, I need somebody to shoot demons and let them work on it. That’s your job.”
“Shooting stuff we can do!” Rook promised.
“Hm,” she grunted. “It occurs to me suddenly that I’ve never actually seen you try.”
“That’s not true, remember when that Longshot clown was—”
All four came to an immediate halt when they heard the noise. The sheer wrongness of it made it more disturbing than the sound itself deserved to be; what should have been an eerie whisper was powerful enough to vibrate their very skeletons. In unison they lifted their eyes to the hellgate above the University.
What emerged was horrifying first and foremost for its size. The armor-plated, birdlike face, ending in a wickedly hooked black beak, was surmounted by a triple row of incandescent red eyes that seemed too small for it by far. It was easily large enough to swallow a Rail caravan. And still, the thing kept coming. It oozed outward, snapping at a group of hiszilisks in passing, its sinuous body continuously unfurling from the portal. The thing was proportioned very much like an eel, but partially covered with plates of rusty-looking armor, from between which emerged an orange glow, as if the beast were filled with fire and its skin cracking. An almost comically small pair of fins waved just behind its head, with above them pulsing translucent sacs that definitely were full of fire, inflating and collapsing with the rhythm of its breath. When it finally fully emerged from the portal, with a flick of its finned tail, it was longer than a passenger zeppelin, and roughly as massive.
“No,” Moriarty whispered.
“Hm,” Tellwyrn mused. “That hellgate’s bigger than I realized.”
“What the hell is that?” Rook asked shakily.
“It’s called a nurdrakhaan,” she replied, resuming her stride. They trailed along behind her, after a moment’s hesitation. “You may note a similar root in there to the word ‘dragon.’ That’s Hell’s version of the same basic thing. Less intelligent, less restrained, considerably more destructive.”
“You’re awfully calm,” Rook said, his tone almost accusing.
“Just as soon as it becomes productive to panic, I assure you, I’ll take up the habit. Now, since we can’t teleport this close to the active gate, we’re gonna have to take the slow way back up the mountain.”
“I don’t know about you,” said Finchley, “but after hiking up that thing we may not be in the best shape to fight demons!”
“I said the slow way, not the stupid way,” Tellwyrn snapped. She had led them across the outer square of the town, abutting the Rail platform and scrolltower office, to the front of the Ale & Wenches. The Professor grabbed the front door by its handle, which immediately glowed blue for a moment, and the lock clicked open. She pulled the door open and stepped within. “Come on, come on. Time’s wasting.”
“Well…that’s one way to do it,” Ruda said slowly. They watched, weapons at the ready, as the enormous monstrosity spun through the air above them, snapping up whole clusters of hiszilisks in its gigantic maw. It appeared to move slowly, its undulations almost dreamlike, but that was an illusion created by its size. It was clearly faster than the smaller, more nimble demons. Their habit of grouping together made them more vulnerable to its attacks, but they didn’t seem in a hurry to learn.
“Why is it helping us?” Gabriel demanded, turning to look at Trissiny.
“It’s not,” she said tersely.
“But it’s only attacking the demons, not the campus!”
“A nurdrakhaan doesn’t help.”
“We were told those demons don’t answer to Elilial,” Toby said slowly, frowning up at the scene playing out above them. “With the implication that whoever opened the hellgate and brought them here didn’t, either. What if she sent something to clean up the mess on the other end?”
“Regardless,” Trissiny said sharply, “that thing cannot be allowed to run amok on the mortal plane. In the very immediate term, yes, it seems to be cleaning up the hiszilisks for us, which is fine. But it’s also a vastly greater threat than they are, and we need to bring it down.”
“What if it just goes back through the portal after it finishes with those guys?” Fross asked.
“Demons don’t do that.”
“Then the question,” Shaeine said softly, “is how do you propose to kill it?”
Trissiny frowned. “…Vadrieny, can you knock it out of the air?”
“I don’t have the physical strength,” the archdemon admitted. “There’s no leverage in the air. It’s not aerodynamic, as you can see; it flies by magic, and it has a lot of magic. I don’t know how to interfere with the spells holding it up.”
“How much can you hurt it, do you think?”
She flexed her claws. “As much as I can get these on, which…would annoy it, sure. Maybe I could put out its eyes?”
“Somehow I don’t think having that thing reeling around blind would be a positive development,” said Gabriel.
A small pack of hiszilisks came at them from a steep dive, screeching. They hit a cloud of ice expelled by Fross, then tumbled through a barrage of Gabriel’s wandfire into a haze of golden light, finally impacting a silver shield which immediately flickered out, leaving them to tumble, smoking, to the ground a few feet distant.
“What about mithril?” Fross suggested. “Sounds like it’ll fall naturally if we block the magic in it. In fact, that might kill it outright. I doubt that thing could breathe in this atmosphere if we impose objective physics on it.”
“We have one mithril item in our possession,” said Ruda, patting her rapier, “and apart from the difficulty of getting it up there, it’s just not big enough to make much of a dent.”
“Triss, does it have vital points?” Juniper asked.
Trissiny shook her head slowly, still staring up at the gargantuan demon. “Presumably. It’s not as if anyone’s ever dissected one in a lab. I imagine they’re somewhere on the inside.”
“Then we brute force it,” said Gabriel. “Vadrieny can probably rip through that armor, given time and space to work. Juniper cancels infernal power just by touching it. Ruda’s sword—hell, Trissiny’s sword will harm it. So…all we have to do is get it on the ground, dazed or too wounded to fight.”
The nurdrakhaan opened its huge maw and that disconcerting hissing roar sounded again. Hiszilisks fled in all directions; one group was too slow, and vanished in a snap of its jaws.
“Oh, is that all,” Ruda said. “Well, we’re just about done here then, aren’t we? I’ll go get a head start on planning our victory bash.”
“I hope that’s making you feel better,” he told her, “because it sure as hell isn’t helping.”
“Right, keeping on point,” said Toby. “I think Gabriel’s right. So we need ideas.”
“To begin with, we can’t do that here,” said Trissiny. “There’s just not room on the mountaintop for that thing to lie down. We’ll have to abandon this position and lure it down onto the plain somehow.”
“Then I’d better take point,” Vadrieny said. “I’m the only one mobile enough in the air to manipulate it that closely.”
“Ahem,” said Fross.
“Fross, even if you’ve got the firepower to damage that thing,” said Gabriel, “you’re probably too small for it to see.”
“You may be right,” the pixie said grudgingly.
“What if you get eaten?” Trissiny asked Vadrieny.
The demon grinned, displaying her disturbing complement of fangs. “Then I’ll be closer to its vitals, won’t I?”
“Let us call that Plan B,” Shaeine said firmly.
“Then we have a strategy,” said Trissiny. “Moving will attract the hiszilisks, which isn’t ideal, but I don’t see a choice. We need to make our way down the mountain and away from the town. Vadrieny, you’ll have to stay on top of the nurdrakhaan. As long as it’s just killing hiszilisks, leave it alone, but if it—”
“Incoming,” Fross interrupted. “Two o’clock, eighty degree elevation.”
Trissiny turned her head to scowl at the cluster of hiszilisks now heading straight for them in a steep dive. That particular flock had just had half their number snapped up by the nurdrakhaan, which was now moving past behind them.
“Shaeine, rest,” Trissiny said tersely. “Gabe, discourage them. Toby, Fross, stand by for them to close.”
Gabriel had already raised both wands and unleashed a barrage of blasts at the incoming demons. Lightning snapped through the cluster, arcing between several targets; they were singed but not as badly affected by pure electricity while not grounded. His other wand, the ebony-hafted enchanter’s weapon the Crawl had given him, did a lot more damage. Two demons plummeted from the sky, and a third veered to the side, clipped by a wandshot.
“You’re getting better with that thing,” Toby commented.
Gabriel grinned, half-turning his head to reply.
In that moment a stray shot struck the nurdrakhaan, near the tip of its tail.
The enormous beast instantly pivoted in midair, turning to glare down at them directly, and opened its mouth to emit that skeleton-vibrating hiss.
The good news was that the hiszilisks immediately abandoned their attack, scattering in all directions.
“Oh, come on,” Gabriel whispered. “It’s made of armor. How did it even feel that?”
“Arquin, we’ve only known each other less than a year,” Ruda said in a tone of resignation, “but somehow I feel I’ve always known that when I died, it would be your fucking fault.”
“Shh,” Trissiny murmured. “Don’t move. Maybe it—”
The mammoth demon hissed again and dived straight toward them. Suddenly its motion didn’t seem nearly so slow.
“Get moving!” Vadrieny ordered, and with a beat of her wings shot upward, straight at the creature.
The archdemon curved sideways in flight to approach it at an angle, and slammed straight into the side of its armored beak, actually forcing the monstrosity off course. Letting out a wild scream, she clawed savagely at the thick shell plating its face, tearing loose handfuls of chitinous armor. The nurdrakhaan hissed in protest, shaking its head to dislodge her.
“New plan!” Trissiny announced. “Run for it! Keep an eye on the sky, we’ll have to—”
Another, even louder hiss that literally shook the ground made them all pause, wincing; Shaeine clapped both hands over her sensitive ears. The nurdrakhaan twisted in midair, smashing its face against the upper level of the astronomy tower and crushing Vadrieny into the edifice. Stone crumbled under the blow, the entire structure swaying dangerously. The nurdrakhaan pulled back; in the next second, Vadrieny was visible, dragging herself out of a collapsed pile of masonry and flexing her wings for another takeoff.
Moving faster than they had yet seen it do, the nurdrakhaan whipped around, smashing its tail against her and the tower.
The entire tower was pulverized, rubble flying outward over the side of the mountain to plummet to the plain below. There was no sign of the archdemon amid the carnage.
“She’s fine,” Trissiny said, grabbing Shaeine’s shoulder as the drow took a compulsive step toward the ruins. “No amount of physical force will harm her. She has her job to do; we need to keep moving! Stay together—”
“No,” Ruda shouted, “scatter!”
It came down on them like a falling star, ridged jaws wide and hissing furiously. The students bolted in two directions as the colossal demon hit the ground mouth-first. It scooped out a huge swath of the lawn, changing course at the point of impact with astonishing agility, seemingly unfazed by the force of its own landing. Dragging its long, armored bulk through the rut it had bitten out only widened it, tossing soil, fragments of stone walkways and hiszilisk corpses in all directions.
No one was slow enough to be swallowed, but no one was agile to get completely out of the way, with the lucky exception of Fross.
“I gotcha!” the pixie shouted, yanking Ruda with her on an invisible cord of magic. The pirate flew straight backward into the hefty doors of Helion Hall, where she crumpled to the ground, dazed. “Oh, crap,” Fross yelped, zipping over to her.
Juniper managed to keep her feet, even as the very ground under her was torn up and rippled outward like a tidal wave. She even bounded toward the massive demon as its coils ground past, slamming a fist into its side. The blow was ineffectual and cost her enough balance to send her tumbling back down, but for at least a moment she managed to provide a testament to the martial forms in which Professor Ezzaniel had drilled her in lieu of having her actually fight other students.
Shaine and Gabriel were hit directly by the edge of the nurdrakhaan’s beak; he went sailing straight into a tree, managing to keep a grip on only one of his wands. She had the presence of mind to wreath herself in a silver shield, and to sustain it as the magical orb was sent bouncing down the stairs to the next terrace down, where it collapsed, as did she.
Toby, rather than running from the demon, threw himself at Trissiny, who had side-stepped neatly but not attempted to flee. Throwing his arms around her shoulders from behind, he wreathed them both in a golden glow, firmer than those he had been using against the hiszilisks. Her own golden shield covered them more closely. The double layer of protection barely saved them.
Her dodge had taken her out of the immediate range of the demon’s mouth, but in the subsequent disturbance of the ground, she hadn’t the footing to evade the impact of its fin. Whether by chance or intention, it flicked them upward, sending the two paladins hurtling onto the roof of the cafeteria. Their joined shields held up to that blow and the impact, but that was all.
Toby staggered to the floor, winded, Trissiny barely keeping her feet. Just beyond them, over the low lip of stone that surrounded the roof, the nurdrakhaan ascended skyward again, hissing.
“Now what?” Toby wheezed, dragging himself upright.
“I have a plan,” she said grimly, her eyes on the beast. Her aura flared gold again. “Are you close to burnout?”
“Not nearly. I’ve been pacing myself. I’m assuming you can go even longer, being part elf?”
She nodded. “Light up. Shield yourself and put out as much of a corona as you safely can.”
He did so, watching her for further cues. She followed her own advice, keeping her gaze fixed on the enormous demon. Between the two of them, the entire roof of the cafeteria blazed as if under the noonday sun.
“Okay, what next?”
Trissiny pointed at the beast with her sword; the ancient, pitted blade glowed nearly white with the intensity of the magic gathering in it, then blazed forward in one concerted burst.
He could see why she didn’t use that tactic as a weapon. The light flowed out more like radiance from a shuttered lantern than the directed energy of a wandshot. It was focused enough, however, to make a gleaming patch along the side of the nurdrakhaan.
The monster whirled again, fixing its six scarlet eyes on them, and hissed.
“Trissiny?” Toby said urgently.
“Gather and rally everyone,” she ordered, glaring up at the demon.
“Oh, no you don’t, I know what you’re thinking and you can forg—”
“Together we can do this, but they’ll be picked off individually,” she snapped. “They must rally. Get it done, Caine.”
The nurdrakhaan hissed once more and dived straight at them.
Trissiny whirled and planted a snap kick right in the side of Toby’s shield, booting him toward the edge of the roof.
All his years of training in the martial arts were thwarted by his own shield; he had never practiced keeping his balance while at the fixed center of an indestructible sphere. The orb of energy hit the foot-high wall and rolled neatly over, lifting his feet right off the floor and sending him plummeting off the side.
He hit the ground hard for the second time in the last sixty seconds, again losing his hold on the shield. He immediately flung it back up, barely avoiding being crushed by debris as the nurdrakhaan ripped a huge gouge out of the roof of the cafeteria.
Through the dust, at a painful angle around the broken masonry between him and the beast, he could see it rising skyward again, hissing its displeasure, the source of which was the glowing Hand of Avei clinging to its face with her sword lodged in one of the gouges Vadrieny had made in its armor.