“You have the Rhynn Lanthorn? Then you have slain Bhur– Bodhi?” Duke Elhan, commander of the Elven army, gave a grim smile.
“Yep,” Buffy confirmed. “Cut off her head and then staked her body in its coffin. She’s dead and gone for good.”
“A deed well done, and a black evil has been removed from this land,” said Elhan. “Now give me the Lanthorn and we can march to liberate our city and slay Irenicus.”
“That would be a no,” Buffy said. “The magic flashlight stays with us.”
“Impossible!” Elhan spluttered. “This is a matter for the Elves. We will deal with Irenicus ourselves. We need no outsiders involving themselves.”
“It stopped being an Elvish matter when Irenicus and Bodhi turned up in Athkatla and began killing and kidnapping people,” Sorkatani said.
“What they did before they attacked Suldanessellar is no concern of ours,” Elhan claimed.
“Yeah, right,” Buffy said. “So if Amn kicked out the Shadow Thieves, and they came here and started running their rackets, the Council of Six could just shrug their shoulders and say ‘Hey, not our problem’, right?”
“That comparison is ridiculous!” Elhan protested. “Irenicus is an outsider, nothing to do with us, who attacked us for no reason.”
“Oh?” Sorkatani raised her eyebrows. “Then why do you call him The Exile? And several times you have come close to calling Bodhi by her full name. Jon Irenicus and Bodhi – Joneleth and Bhuraedea, Elves of Suldanessellar, cast out by your Queen for some heinous crime.”
“And she didn’t just cast them out, which was dumb anyway, she went for the double and did something even dumber,” Buffy took over again. “She had her mages take away their souls. That just turned them into… uh, you don’t have ticking time-bombs in this world… help me out, Will?”
“Explosive Runes?” Willow suggested. “Delayed Action Fireballs?”
“Into Delayed Action Fireballs,” Buffy continued, flashing Willow a smile. “Sitting there just waiting to go off and kill somebody. Why do something so freaking stupid as removing their souls?”
Elhan sighed. “I see there is no use dissembling any further,” he said. “How did you find out?”
“We’ve been their prisoner twice,” Buffy said, “and Irenicus did the whole self-justifying villain spiel more than once, especially when he was torturing Imoen. And we’ve read parts of his diaries. Plus, Bodhi’s an Elf, a vampire one anyway, and Irenicus is her brother. That was a major clue that there was something weird going on right from the start. So, why did you do it?”
“They committed a terrible crime,” Elhan said, “but it is… not done… for Elves to execute Elves. It was a… compromise. Removing their Elven souls meant that they would age and die. Joneleth, as the one most directly guilty, was punished more harshly than his sister and physically transformed into a human. He would thus die naturally in some forty or fifty years or so. Bhuraedea would follow in a few decades longer at most.”
Buffy rolled her eyes. “And I bet it took Bodhi a whole thirty seconds to figure out how she could stay young and beautiful forever by getting turned into a vampire. And without a soul she didn’t have a damn thing to lose.”
“And as for Irenicus,” Sorkatani said, “did it not occur to you that he is an Archmage? How old is Elminster, do you think? And it is known that Halaster came originally from Netheril – and that empire fell seventeen hundred years ago. It was inevitable that Irenicus would, like them, find some way of staving off his death. And the method he chose involved torturing my sister, and me, and cost the lives of some very dear friends.”
“And now it’s payback time,” Buffy said, “and there is no way you’re going to keep us out of it. Frankly, we don’t trust you to do it right. You’ll let him go again. And that’s just not going to happen.”
Elhan sighed. “I cannot swear that, if Irenicus surrenders, Queen Ellesime will not once again show him mercy,” he admitted. “That he would surrender is highly unlikely, of course, but I suppose it cannot be ruled out absolutely.”
“We would not kill one who had surrendered, in normal circumstances,” Sorkatani said, “but for Irenicus we will make an exception. He has to die.”
“I can tell that you will not be dissuaded from this course,” said Elhan. “Very well, I will not stand in your way. But my army will accompany you. I will not permit you to enter Suldanessellar without the Elves.”
“We didn’t intend to,” Buffy said. “We didn’t come mob-handed just so that we could fight the crew Irenicus put together to attack your city. Our friends came along so we could be sure that your people would behave themselves – and not try to take the magic lamp and push us out.”
Elhan was silent for a moment but his face revealed, as clearly as if he had spoken out loud, that he would have tried exactly that had the party from Athkatla been less formidable. When at last he spoke his gaze was focused on Jarlaxle. “Another Drow,” he said. “You had but the one with you, when you passed this way before, and now you have two. And a… Dwarf.”
“You have a problem with that?” Buffy said, as Korgan’s beard bristled. “We picked the toughest crew we could find. And we made a point of bringing people from different, uh, communities so you’d see that your dirty little family secret isn’t so secret any more. Korgan’s as tough as they come. What he lacks in, uh, personal hygiene he makes up for in his axe-wielding skills.”
“Ah’m nae ower fond o’ ye pointy-eared scunners,” said Korgan, “but ah’ll gie yon beasties whit hae takken ower yer city a guid skelpin’ wi’ ma axe an’ nae charge ye a copper. Oot o’ the guidness o’ ma heart – an’ ‘cos the wee lassies askit me tae.”
“I have no idea what the Dwarf just said,” Elhan admitted, “but I will take it as being a statement of commitment to our cause. But what of the Drow?”
Jarlaxle swept off his hat and bowed. “Jarlaxle of Bregan D’aerthe at your service,” he said, giving the Elf a dazzling smile. “I am from Menzoberranzan, a thousand miles from here, and have no affiliation with the Drow against whom you recently have been in conflict. Buffy and Sorkatani, and their associates, stepped in to save my friend and me from a rather sticky situation. In return we offered our services against their vampire foe Bodhi but, alas, we arrived too late. And thus, when we heard about this expedition, we were only too happy to volunteer again. I bear no ill will toward the Elves of the Surface World and, indeed, I have another motivation for aiding you beside the request from Buffy. One of my few friends in the nearby Drow city, a lady both beautiful and accommodating, was executed by Matron Mother Ardulace because she opposed the war against your people. To assist in frustrating the fulfillment of the evil plan will bring me a great deal of satisfaction. Let us, then, fight as allies instead of as opponents. Much better for everyone, do you not think?”
Elhan blinked several times. “Ah, yes,” he said. “I suppose I have no objections to a mere two Drow accompanying us. And it does seem somehow appropriate that Drow should help mend what Drow have marred.”
Buffy and Sorkatani exchanged eye-rolls. The Drow, they knew, had been played for suckers by Irenicus and were almost as much victims as the Elves. However the two Slayers came to a mutual, wordless, decision to let the point slide for the moment.
“Okay, that’s settled,” Buffy said, “so let’s get with the mission. I hope your guys are ready to march. If they’re not we might just leave them behind.”
“O…kay? Guys?” Elhan’s forehead creased in puzzlement.
“They mean ‘very well’ and ‘people’,” Sorkatani translated. “But the important bits were the rest of what she said. We have spent long enough in talking. Let us set off immediately.”
Elhan nodded. “The army is, indeed, ready to march upon my command. You have returned sooner than I expected but I had mages exploring other avenues and had to be prepared for their possible success. One regiment is stood down, as we could not maintain full readiness of all units all of the time, but I had planned to leave a force here to keep an eye on the Drow in any event. Those not ready in time will remain to watch the Drow.” He turned to an aide, who had been standing silently at his shoulder, and gave an order.
“So we’re good to go,” Buffy said.
“We are,” Elhan confirmed. “Do you know how to use the Lanthorn?”
“Will, show him,” Buffy said.
Willow swept the lantern through an arc. It glowed dimly at the ends of the arc and brightly at the center. “We head in the direction where it’s glowing brightest,” she said. “Pretty obvious. It’s not exactly… broomstick science.”
“You are correct,” said Elhan. “We will be ready to march within five minutes.”
“At last!” Dawn exclaimed, and then she burst into song.
“We’re off to kill the wizard,
The worst wizard that ever was
We hear he is a pig of a Wiz
If ever a pig there was
If ever a horrible wizard there was
Irenicus is that wizard because
Because, because, because, because, because,
Because of the horrible things he does!
We’re off to kill the wizard
The worst wizard that ever was!”
Giles was breathing heavily by the time he finished the ascent of the steps. “My word,” he said, “it’s a good thing I’ve become somewhat fitter since coming to this world. Otherwise that climb, coming at the end of an eight-hour hike, might have been the end of me.”
“Hah!” exclaimed Sir William Reirac, who was only slightly younger than Giles. “You should try doing it in plate armor.”
“Two hundred and sixty steps, with an average tread height of eight inches,” Willow calculated, “so we’ve come up a hundred and seventy-three feet. These are some seriously big trees.”
“It’s kinda weird how much this place looks like Ust Natha, only smaller,” Buffy remarked. “I was thinking tree-houses with, like, planks laid across the branches. But these walkways are ten feet wide and some of the houses are made of actual stone. And it totally reminds me of the paths between the stalactites – or do I mean stalagmites? – in Ust Natha.”
“We were kin to the Wood Elves,” Viconia said, “and in lost Miyeritar we lived together with them. It is not so surprising that our architects should deal in the same way with circumstances that, save for the differences between wood and stone, are quite similar. The layout of Menzoberranzan is very different and Ched Nasad even more so.”
“We’re going to have more room to fight than I thought,” Buffy said, “which is of the good.” She pursed her lips. “But the down side is that some of the Elves have gotten ahead of us.”
Once up the stairs and onto the walkways the Elves, who had the advantage of knowing the ground, had turned onto side paths and made haste to reach the large central plaza area ahead of the adventurers. And had run straight into trouble.
There were no Drow in sight at all. Neither were there any Rakshasa. Just multiple Cloudkills, erupting around the Elves, the greenish vapor spreading out and carrying choking death to whatever it touched. And as the Elves fled the poison clouds, desperately seeking breathable air in the gaps, other spells hit the densely-packed areas. A Lightning Bolt seared along the walkway along which Buffy and her companions were advancing, leaving dead and injured Elves in its wake, until it struck the field around Willow’s staff and was snuffed out.
“Get out of the way, you stupid gits!” Spike growled, trying to force his way through the fleeing Elves. “Cloudkill does sod all to me. I can walk right through it and kill the buggers.”
The Elves took no notice of his words and continued to block the path forward. As getting out of Spike’s way, in the press of retreating bodies, would have meant either going back into the Cloudkills, or jumping over the walkway to plummet a hundred and seventy feet to the forest floor, they could perhaps be excused for their failure to comply.
“I can’t get close enough to cast Zone of Sweet Air,” Tara complained. She set about healing those injured Elves who came within reach.
“And I’m out of range of a Dispel,” Willow added, “and I’m not wild about using Fly to get closer when there’s a dragon around here somewhere. Are the other side invisible, which would have to be Improved Invisibility, or are they hiding in the buildings and ducking down out of sight after they cast their spells?”
“Some of each,” Jarlaxle answered. His magical eye-patch gave him True Seeing. “All are Rakshasa. I see no Drow.”
“The range is a little long,” Willow mused, “but I could just about reach the far side of the plaza with some area of effect spells.”
“They are quite close to the darthien,” Jarlaxle replied. “It would require precise targeting.”
Willow pursed her lips. “I was planning on keeping True Seeing back for when we get to Irenicus,” she said, “but it looks like I’ll have to use it now and hope I can get it back with Spell Trap later.”
“Hmm,” Giles said. “I have a song that could well clear up both of our problems in one go. Let’s see if this works.” He struck up a jaunty rhythm and then began to sing.
“Nice to be here hope you agree
Lying in the sun
Lovely weather, must climb a tree
The show has just begun
All the leaves start swaying
To the breeze that's playing
On a thousand violins
And the bees are humming
To a frog sat strumming
On a guitar with only one string…”
As he sang the early evening sunlight, filtering through the leaves of the highest branches, seemed to brighten. There was a breeze blowing already, although it was having little or no effect upon the Cloudkills, but now it freshened and the clouds of deadly vapor began to break up and disperse.
“I can see them, they can't see me,” Giles continued,
“I feel out of sight
I can see them, they can't see me
Much to my delight…”
Giles vanished. The sound of his guitar remained to prove that he had become invisible rather than teleporting elsewhere. “Ah, yes, that seems to have worked rather well,” he remarked, as he continued to play. “I see them plainly. Rakshasa, as Jarlaxle said, and they were in the areas covered by the Cloudkills. Magic resistant, or immune to poison, I presume. Ah, am I invisible? I can see myself.”
“You sure are, Giles,” Willow confirmed. “Neat triple whammy. Sweet Air, True Seeing, and Invisibility all in one package.”
“Won’t exactly be able to sneak up on them, though, seeing as how you’re still strumming away,” Spike pointed out.
“True,” Giles agreed. “That’s the down side of bardic magic, I suppose.”
“Hmm. I wonder if I could do that,” Sharwyn said. She shrank her Double-Sword and pocketed it, slipped her guitar strap from her shoulder, and swung the instrument into position. “Shar, guide my hand,” she said, and joined Giles on the melody.
Viconia followed Sharwyn’s lead. When the next chorus came both women sang together and, at the words ‘I can see them, they can't see me’, they vanished.
“Cool, we’ve got three bards,” Buffy said. “Hey, Korgan, are you going to try?”
“Nae danger o’ thot,” Korgan said. “Ah’ll nae futer about wi’ magic, it’s fer jessies. Ah’ll stick tae skelpin’ yon beasties wi’ ma axe.”
“Uh, right,” Buffy said. She rolled her eyes. “I’ll take that as a ‘no’. Okay, Giles, point me at the Raky-Shaky guys so I can go do my thing.”
“Oh, this is wonderful,” Sharwyn called out. “I’m a real Bard!”
“Uh, Sharwyn,” Xander pointed out, “you’ve just turned visible again.”
“Oh, bugger!” Sharwyn exclaimed. “I must have lost focus.”
“Don’t worry, you’ll get the hang of it soon enough,” Giles told her. “Keep playing, anyway. With you two playing the music I should be able to get by with merely singing along with the choruses, leaving my hands free to do other, more productive, things. Like, for instance, sniping at the Rakshasa with a crossbow loaded with blessed bolts. Anya’s crossbow is the only one that would be accurate at this range, I believe, so if I might borrow it…?”
“Of course,” Anya said. “You’re not likely to damage it… unlike certain other, less careful, people I could mention.”
“I was kinda thinking of getting more up close and personal,” Buffy said, “as soon as the Elves get out of the friggin’ way.”
“Make way!” Minsc bellowed. “Heroes coming through!” The Elves, at last, began to disperse so that they weren’t clogging up the path along the walkway.
“You’ll be at something of a disadvantage against invisible opponents, Buffy,” Giles cautioned. “I don’t think that me shouting ‘right a bit, left a bit’ will be terribly efficient.”
“You will not need to, a’mael,” Jaheira told him, as he swapped his guitar for Anya’s crossbow and waited for Tara to complete casting a Bless on a bag of crossbow bolts. “I cast True Seeing whilst Willow dithered and I know how to make the Rakshasa visible to all.” She raised a hand and uttered a phrase. A buzzing, faint at first but rapidly growing louder, answered her. “Look for where the wasps and biting flies cluster.”
“Like a picnic,” said Spike.
“Cool,” said Buffy. She unsheathed the Blade of Roses and, beside her, Sorkatani drew Celestial Fury. “Showtime!”
Buffy stepped back from the wreck of an iron golem and hooked the thong of the Hammer of Thunderbolts on her belt. “I think that’s the last of them,” she said. “That was… fun, in a weird way. There’s something kinda… catarrh-y about smashing up robots.”
“Uh, I think you mean ‘cathartic’,” Willow corrected her. “Catarrh-y would mean they gave you a runny nose.”
“Eww. Well, that would be better than the serial killer robots we’ve met. Moloch, Ted, Adam… robots are Evil.”
“Uh, the Buffy-bot wasn’t Evil,” Tara pointed out. “Not terribly clever but she was Good, or tried to be.”
Buffy screwed up her nose. “I never really got to know it,” she said, “on account of me being dead most of the time it was around.”
“Bender’s more Chaotic Neutral than Evil,” Xander said.
“Yes, but he isn’t real,” Willow said. “He’s just a cartoon character.”
“Anyway, we kicked their shiny metal asses,” Xander said. “How are things going with the Drow?”
“I think most of them have surrendered,” Willow said. “Some are still holed up in houses with hostages, though.”
“I bet the Elves will want us to act as a SWAT team,” Xander said. “Well, we can do that, I guess. Any sign of Irenicus?”
“Not that anyone’s told me,” said Buffy, “but then I’ve been a little busy with the robot-smashing. What about the dragon? Things could have gotten nasty if it had swooped down on us while we were busy kicking robot ass.”
“I haven’t seen it,” Xander said, “and a dinosaur-sized dragon would be pretty hard to miss. Maybe it’s gone back where it came from.”
“Not with the city sealed up so no-one could get in or out,” Buffy pointed out. “We’d better find it. Otherwise it’ll come up behind us when we’re fighting Irenicus. That would be a whole lot of no fun.”
“Maybe one of those guys can tell us where to find the dragon,” Xander suggested, pointing to where some of the city’s residents were leaving their houses and, now that the way was clear, were joining up with the main body of the Elven army. “I’ll go ask.” He strode off toward the nearest Elves.
Jaheira paused in the act of wiping Rakshasa blood from her spear and watched as Xander met the Elves. “Perhaps I should have gone,” she remarked, as Xander’s first attempt to question an Elf was met with blank incomprehension. “There is little call for the denizens of this city to speak the Common Tongue and Xander may find it impossible to make himself understood.”
Xander’s second attempt, no more successful than his first, seemed to indicate that Jaheira was right. However on his third try he found a couple of Elves who understood him and, after a conversation involving a great deal of gesturing and pointing, he returned to the group with a smile on his face.
“Good news, everyone,” Xander announced. “Well, I guess that depends on your perspective of good, but I’ve located the dragon. They tell me it’s, uh, under the boardwalk.”
“Out of the sun,” Giles added, automatically. “Although one would have thought that, as a reptile, it would have enjoyed basking in the sun.”
“It’s a dragon, not a coster,” Spike said, raising a chuckle from Giles but leaving the non-English party members baffled by the ‘Pirates of Penzance’ reference.
“And I found out where Irenicus is, too,” Xander added. “He’s in the palace. And, guess what, he’s sealed that off too. Nobody gets in or out.”
“We’ll find a way to open it,” Buffy said, confidently, “but we’d better deal with the dragon first. Let’s take a look.”
Xander led the way, following the directions he had received from the Elves, and before long everyone was standing at the edge of a walkway looking down at the giant creature far below them.
“It’s pretty hard to judge size from way up here,” Xander commented, “but I’d reckon it’s at least as big as Firkraag.” The dragon was lying at an angle to the walkway, rather than directly underneath, and its head and the front part of its torso lay out in the open. On the other side of the walkway a ten-foot length of tail was visible. “The Elves told me that it ate about fifty of them when the bad guys first attacked,” Xander went on, “and it’s been sleeping off the meal ever since.”
“Sounds like the Cool Hand Luke of dragons,” Spike remarked. “I can eat fifty Elves.”
This time it was Xander and Anya who chuckled. Willow uttered a strangled snort, Tara grinned briefly, and Buffy wrinkled her nose.
Giles tutted. “Really, Spike, that was bad even for you,” he scolded.
“Yeah, gross,” Buffy said. “But, anyway, we’d better kill it. It’s probably slept off the Elves by now and it’ll be coming looking for breakfast – and we’d be first on the menu.”
“According to the Elves it’s a powerful mage,” Xander warned. “We’d better hit it as hard as we can while it’s still asleep.”
“Oh, dear, another climb up and down those extremely long stairs,” Giles moaned.
“We should drop a piano on it,” Anya suggested. “Well, one of those organ things they have here, a… zulkoon. They might have one in their temple.”
“That’s… rather a good idea, actually,” said Giles.
Spike winced. “Can certainly vouch for an organ doing a lot of damage when it lands on you,” he said.
“Uh, sorry,” said Buffy, “but you were a bad guy then, after all.”
“We don’t need to be so specific, however,” Giles went on. “There are several tons of scrap metal lying in fairly close proximity to our position.”
“Yeah, we can drop an iron golem on it,” Xander agreed. “Got to weigh a couple of tons.”
“Five thousand pounds,” Sorkatani confirmed. “From this height such an impact would destroy even the greatest of dragons.”
“It’s gonna be a bitch getting one over here, though,” Xander said. “If we break off the arms we can roll it across the plaza but we’ll have to drag it along the walkway.”
“I can use a Grease spell to make that easier,” Willow said. “Uh, moving something that big might make enough noise to wake the dragon and I don’t have a Silence memorized – it could be kinda counter-productive when Giles is around. Anyone else got one?”
“Got one built into my sword and I’ve never used it,” Spike said. “This seems as good a time as any to test it out.”
“Okay, let’s do it,” Buffy said. Before long everyone had gathered around the closest of the fallen iron golems and Buffy and Sorkatani began to wrench the arms out of their sockets.
Before they had finished with the second arm Duke Elhan, accompanied by one of his officers and two civilian Elves, arrived on the scene. He directed a glower at the two Slayers. “There is still much to be done before the city is retaken,” Elhan grumbled. “You are wasting time. Surely you can salvage that wreckage later?”
“We’re going to drop it on the dragon,” Buffy said, her tone icy. “Excuse me for wanting to kill something that I hear has eaten fifty Elves.”
“Oh.” Elhan bit his lip. “Forgive me. However I must entreat your aid in another urgent matter.”
“More urgent than making sure we don’t get jumped from behind by a humungous dragon?” Buffy asked.
“Perhaps not,” Elhan conceded, “but your party is large. Surely you can spare some members for another task?”
“Something you can’t do with your two and a half thousand soldiers?” Buffy wrenched the golem’s arm free, reversed it, and rammed it into the arm-hole until almost none of it protruded. “Maybe. Tell us more.”
“Hostage rescue,” Xander guessed. “Just like I predicted.”
“Indeed that is so,” Elhan confirmed, his eyebrows lifting. “We have persuaded some of the Drow to surrender and release their captives, and have taken other houses by storm and freed the occupants, but some hold out still. The High Priestess Demin is held captive by, we think, three Rakshasa and a Drow captain. They demand passage out of the city before they will release her – and that we cannot grant, for once they depart with Demin there is nothing to prevent them slaying her anyway. Or taking her to the realm of the Rakshasa as a slave or, even, as a meal.”
“Eww,” Buffy groaned. “Okay, okay, we’ll help.”
“I take it you have made an attempt to rescue her,” said Sorkatani. “What happened?”
“We sent in six Rangers, well-armed and invisible,” Elhan said. “Alas, the Rakshasa could see them and the mission failed. Two of my men were slain and the others had to retreat when a Rakshasa held its talons against Demin’s throat and threatened to slay her on the spot.”
Sorkatani nodded. “An assault without the element of surprise was foredoomed. I suggest we begin with negotiation.”
“And we have someone with us who could talk the hind legs off of a donkey and, like Spike said, persuade it to go for a walk afterwards,” Buffy said.
“Indeed Jarlaxle, with Artemis for when it turns violent, would be well suited for this task,” Sorkatani agreed.
“With Spike as a third,” Buffy suggested. “He can go in unarmed.”
“Thanks a bunch, Slayer,” Spike said.
“I’m paying you a compliment, Spike,” Buffy said. “You don’t need weapons to kill a Ravi Shankar – but they’ll think you do.”
“You do that on bloody purpose,” Spike accused. “Even you couldn’t muddle up an Indian sitar player and a bunch of tiger-headed demon blokes.” Buffy merely looked back at him with her eyebrows slightly raised. “Oh, all bloody right,” Spike said. “I’ll go and help rescue the High Priestess. Pity, was looking forward to watching the dragon get splatted, but I’ll have to miss it. And they don’t even have video cameras here.”
“Look on the bright side, Spike,” Buffy said. “You’ll also miss out on having to push this freaking heavy robot around.”
“There is that,” Spike conceded. “I’ll drop my sword off with somebody so they can cast the Silence spell. Giles’ll probably take best care of it.”
Buffy turned back to Elhan. “You can send some of your soldiers over to help us out with moving this thing. We don’t have a lot of time. The sun’s pretty low and we need to get it done while it’s still light enough to see. Aiming at a black dragon in the dark could be tricky and we need to get it right first time. If we miss, or just hit it a glancing blow, we’ll only get it pissed. And nobody wants that.”
Elhan glanced skyward and shivered. “Indeed so,” he said. “I shall have a dozen men with you in five minutes.”
“Good,” said Buffy. She set her shoulder against the golem and grinned at Sorkatani. “Let’s roll.”
The Drow sheathed his swords and began to unbuckle his sword-belt. “I surrender,” he said to Jarlaxle. “While Ardulace lived I dared not return to Ust Natha without at least a high-value captive I could claim represented some sort of victory. But with Talabrae in command that would be pointless. She opposed this war from the start. My best chance of being allowed to live is to, as you say, release the prisoner and give myself up.”
“Treacherous weakling!” snarled one of the Rakshasa. “You shall die here and now.” It bared fangs and leapt at the Drow.
In a blur of speed Spike intercepted the Rakshasa. He seized it by one arm but didn’t bother applying any kind of lock; the tiger-demons had joints that were articulated differently from those of humans and conventional locks might not work. Instead he simply pulled the Rakshasa into a knee-strike to the abdomen and, as it doubled up, punched it in the throat. Then he grabbed hold of the Rakshasa’s other arm, put on his game face, and plunged his fangs into the Rakshasa’s neck.
One of the other two Rakshasa roared and rushed to its fellow’s aid. Artemis Entreri took two quick steps, his right arm rose and then swept down, and he drove his dagger home behind the creature’s collarbone. It twisted around, and tried to seize Artemis’ arm and wrench out the dagger, but the enchanted weapon drained away its strength and its struggles were futile. The other Rakshasa, in the grip of a being just as supernatural as itself but even stronger and more skilled at combat, was equally helpless.
The third Rakshasa shifted its grip on the Priestess, putting a hand to her throat, and extended long and sharp talons from its fingers. “Release my comrades or I will cut this one’s throat, yes indeed,” it growled.
Jarlaxle raised his right arm, a dagger in his hand poised to throw, and shook his head. “I think not,” he said. “If you kill the Priestess you die on the spot. You cannot afford to harm her for your only chance of survival depends on her safety. And if you do not release her I shall put a dagger through your eye.”
“Hah! You fool,” the Rakshasa sneered. “You threaten me with an illusionary weapon? Know you not that the Rakshasa are masters of illusion?” It made a threatening gesture that took its clawed hand briefly away from Demin’s throat.
At once Jarlaxle’s left arm blurred. A dagger flashed through the air and buried itself to the hilt in the Rakshasa’s right eye. The demon reeled back, howling and clutching at its face, and Demin took the opportunity to free herself and run to a position behind Jarlaxle.
“I never said which dagger,” Jarlaxle said, as he dismissed the illusionary dagger and then withdrew a disassembled hand crossbow from a pouch at his belt. He snapped the bow section into position on the stock, locked it in place, and then took out a bolt. “And there is more than one kind of illusion.” He worked the lever to cock his weapon and inserted the bolt, blessed earlier by Tara, in the firing groove. By this time the Rakshasa had managed to pull the dagger out and, although blood and other fluids were streaming from the wound, it managed to stand more or less erect and lurched forward. Jarlaxle raised the crossbow and shot it precisely through the other eye. It dropped dead without a sound.
“Geronimo!” Buffy shouted, as the golem went over the edge of the walkway; of course, as she was within the area of the Silence 15-foot Radius spell cast upon the golem, no-one heard her.
Willow counted off seconds; her words were audible because the golem had, before she uttered the word ‘One’, already fallen far enough that she was outside the zone of silence. She counted to three and then, before she reached ‘Four’, the golem landed.
It struck the dragon squarely across the back, just behind the shoulders and the roots of the furled wings, in an eerily silent impact of devastating force. The dragon’s neck straightened, its head shot forward, and a gout of blood erupted from its nose and mouth and covered the grass for twenty feet in front of the beast. Then the head and neck flopped down, convulsed once, and was still.
“Fatality!” Xander exclaimed. “In fact, Flawless Victory!”
Buffy stared down at the dragon for a few seconds before agreeing. “Yep, it’s dead. I’d say we broke its back and squashed its lungs. It won’t be getting up from that.”
“Much easier than our previous two confrontations with dragons,” Giles remarked, “and the credit belongs to Anya.”
Anya grinned and bowed. “For once something good, other than Hasenpfeffer, came from a bunny,” she said.
Imoen wrinkled her nose. “And I thought Spike’s idioms were confusing,” she remarked. “What have rabbits to do anything?”
“Just ignore what you don’t understand,” Sorkatani advised. “That’s what I do.” She turned to Buffy. “With the dragon out of the way we can resume our search for Irenicus,” she said. “Our first step must be to question the Elves.”
Buffy nodded. “Yeah, some of them have to know where he’s hiding,” she said. “Come on, guys.” She led the way back toward the center of the city; some of the group delayed, continuing to look down at the dragon, until others tugged them away. Last to depart were the Elves who had been drafted in to help drag the golem; it was only when they realized that all the adventurers had left that they tore themselves away and scurried back to their unit.
When Buffy’s party reached the platform surrounding the nearest house they met Spike, Artemis, and Jarlaxle coming in the other direction. The three members of the rescue team had brought the freed priestess with them.
“S’ppose I’ve missed the show,” Spike grumbled. “Must have worked out okay or you lot wouldn’t be wombling along with grins all over your faces.”
“It was totally awesome!” Dawn enthused. “We squashed the dragon like a bug.”
“Two and a half tons at seventy-two miles an hour,” Willow said. “Over 1.1 million joules of energy. And, with the dragon resting on solid ground, there was nowhere for the energy to go but into the dragon. Ker-splat!”
Spike’s eyes glazed over slightly. “Sounds impressive,” he said. “Still, we did some good work while you were having fun. One priestess rescued, one Drow surrendered – thanks to Jarlaxle – and three dead tiger-heads. And the priestess knows where Irenicus is.”
“When the city fell Queen Ellesime gathered together those of the women and children she could reach and took them into the palace, where they should have been safe,” High Priestess Demin explained. “After the first occasion on which the Exile attempted to steal the power of the Tree of Life Ellesime took additional precautions. The door to the palace is protected by a ward that enables it to be sealed so that it can be opened only by one with the spark of the Divine. Ellesime carries such a spark. She sealed the door but Irenicus, somehow, was able to get through. He drove out the women and children, slaying some who did not leave fast enough, and sealed the door once more. Now he is within the palace, with Ellesime as his prisoner, and the only way to gain entrance, in Ellesime’s absence, is through a special ritual.”
“So that is why Irenicus wanted us,” Sorkatani said. “Not only as a step on his way to ascension but so that he could get past the barriers. And, with our divine sparks stolen, we cannot merely open the doors in the same way that he did.”
“So what’s this ritual?” Buffy asked.
“We must summon the avatar of Rillifane Ralathil,” Demin replied. “To do so we must gather the three sacred totems. The Talisman of Rillifane, the Goblet of Life, and the Moonblade.”
“Another bloody ‘Forest of Trees’ quest,” Spike muttered.
“They were taken from the temple and divided among the Exile’s servants,” Demin continued. “I believe that the Goblet of Life was taken by a fearsome dragon. I know not where the other totems might be.”
“Crap,” said Xander. “With our luck the Goblet will be under the dragon and we’ll have to climb down all those stairs, move two and a half tons of golem, and then search ten tons of squashed dragon – and then we’ll probably find that the Goblet has been squashed just as flat.”
“Ah, I think we can avoid that necessity,” Giles said. “We know someone else with the ‘spark of the divine’ – the spark that was Imoen’s, in fact – and I believe that she will come to our aid if I ask her in the right way.”
Egeria materialized within the long shadow cast by a building illuminated by the last rays of the setting sun. She was clad in the leather pants she had worn on their last meeting but now topped them with a black shirt that had wide puffed sleeves. Her pale blue hair was tied back in a pony-tail and a sword-belt bearing two swords was around her waist.
“I was engaged in being tutored in sword-play by Eilstraee,” she said, “but it is the will of my Mistress that I put myself at your disposal. For what reason is it that you have summoned me, Master Giles?”
“We have to get through a door that can only be opened by someone with ‘the spark of the divine’,” Giles explained. “You possess the necessary quality.”
“Something to which I am still adjusting,” said Egeria. “However opening a door should be well within my capabilities.” She took a few steps toward a massive iron gate that barred the way to the palace. Beyond the gate lay a paved courtyard in which a huge demon, tall and broad and with short stubby wings, was pacing up and down. “This is the door in question, I take it?”
“Actually, no,” Giles answered. “The doorway we need to open lies beyond that gate. If you wouldn’t mind waiting for a moment while we dispose of that demon…”
Egeria reached across her body with her left hand and drew a sword. “I would welcome the chance to put into practice the skills Eilistraee has been teaching me,” she said. “This demon would seem to be an appropriately challenging opponent.”
“Well, if you’re sure…” said Giles.
Egeria raised her sword in a salute. “I am,” she said. The gate was barred, conventionally rather than magically; Egeria took hold of it and, almost effortlessly, wrenched it open and shattered the bar in the process. She strode through the gate and confronted the demon.
It was well over twice as tall as the seven-foot angel, resembled a colossal ape, and held a great-axe – a two-handed weapon for any human – in one clawed hand. Despite its weaponry, and its apparent physical advantages, it chose to attack first with a spell. A nimbus of rainbow light played around its head and body and then burst in an explosion of light that shot outward and enveloped Egeria.
Before the spell detonated Egeria had cast her own defensive spell and surrounded herself with a shimmering, transparent, globe. The light wave washed over it, failed to penetrate, and passed on to soak into Willow’s Spell Trap and to bounce off a magical barrier put up by Edwin.
The demon followed up its failed Unholy Smite spell by charging forward with axe raised. The mighty weapon swept down; Buffy clenched her teeth and drew back the Hammer of Thunderbolts, ready to throw it in Egeria’s defense.
It wasn’t needed. Egeria didn’t try to block the axe blow but used her sword in a deflection parry to guide it harmlessly past her. Then she riposted and drove her blade into the demon’s stomach.
Unfortunately Nalfeshnee demons were able to withstand massive injury and it barely reacted to the wound. It brought the axe up and butt-stroked Egeria under the ribs. She doubled up and was hit again, with the shaft of the axe, across the jaw. She was knocked down, sprawling on the paving slabs, and lost her grip on her sword. The demon crouched over Egeria, raised its axe again, and reached down with a clawed hand.
Buffy readied her hammer for a throw. Sorkatani and Valygar bent their bows. Willow raised her staff. “The over-confident Solar would appear to need assistance,” Edwin observed, as he too readied a spell.
Then Egeria’s right foot lashed up and caught the beast squarely between the legs. The force of the kick lifted the massive creature from its feet and sent it five feet into the air and ten feet backward. It landed, doubled up, and howled.
“Ouch!” Xander exclaimed. “That had to hurt.”
Egeria used her wings to shove against the ground and bring herself to her feet. She wiped the back of her left hand across her mouth and drew her second sword with her right. Her original sword was still stuck within the belly of the beast. A dark red bruise showed clearly against the alabaster skin of her face yet, despite this, she was smiling.
The demon straightened up and rushed once more to the attack. Egeria side-stepped and turned, moving from one stance to another in a manner taken from Buffy’s T’ai Chi training, and slashed her sword across the back of the demon’s legs as it stumbled past her. It tried to lash out at her with a back-hand blow but Egeria’s sword whipped up and intercepted the striking limb. The combined force of the demon’s strike and Egeria’s parry meant that the blade sliced deep, cutting through skin and muscle and cleaving through bone, and almost severing the arm.
Roaring, the demon turned around. Its left arm now hung useless, ichor streaming from the wound, but it still held the great-axe and it swung in a vicious arc. Egeria deflected it with ease, riposted again with an upward thrust under the demon’s ribs, and made a smooth withdrawal into a ready stance.
Xander grinned widely. “I know something you don’t. I’m not left-handed either,” he misquoted.
Willow chuckled. “Hey, yeah, she’s even dressed like the Man in Black,” she said, “except for the mask.”
Another axe blow was parried and Egeria’s riposte this time drilled into the muscle of the arm, sinking deep, and the axe fell to the ground. The badly-wounded and disarmed demon staggered back, raised its face to the sky, and called out in some unknown language.
Behind Egeria a vortex formed. Out of it stepped a second Nalfeshnee demon. It took a second to size up its surroundings and then took a step toward the angel.
“Take it out!” Buffy commanded. A volley of arrows, hammers, axes, sling bullets, crossbow bolts and spells streaked out from the party, smashed into the demon, and reduced it to a bloody smear on the ground in seconds.
Meanwhile Egeria had moved forward to the attack. She delivered another thrust, a cut, and thrust again. The demon went down on one knee and brought its throat within Egeria’s reach. She thrust for the new target but the demon avoided the thrust by making a desperate, wing-assisted, leap upward and backward. It continued upward, flapping its stubby wings, in an attempt to escape by flight.
The attempt was foredoomed. Egeria took off, much faster than the demon, and caught up with it thirty feet above the ground. She hit it sword first, impaling it upon the blade, and then seized hold of the hilt of her left-hand sword where it still protruded from the demon’s belly. She reversed the direction of her flight, going into a power-dive, and ripped both swords all the way through the demon until they came free in tremendous gouts of guts and ichor. Dead at last the demon fell out of the air, landed on the sloping roof of the palace, slid off and ended up in a messy heap in the courtyard.
Egeria braked with her wings and landed lightly. She held up her swords in front of her face, cast a cleaning cantrip, and then sheathed the weapons. Only then did she use a healing spell to clear up the bruise on her face.
Buffy went to greet her. “Not bad,” she said, “but you shouldn’t have let yourself get hit.”
Egeria nodded. “Indeed so,” she agreed. “I still have a lot to learn. Lady Eilistraee is teaching me conventional styles first and only when I have mastered them will she move on to instruct me in dual-wielding. I will then be able to parry with one and strike with the other.”
“As do I,” said Sorkatani. “But you did well enough, nonetheless.”
“Aye, the bonnie lassie is a braw fichter, reit enow,” Korgan agreed.
“Thank you,” Egeria said, “and thanks to you and your comrades for destroying the second demon. You dispatched it with impressive speed.”
“We don’t believe in giving demons an even break,” Buffy said. “Better to waste a few spells than to give it a chance to fight back – or to summon more of them. We’ve still got plenty of firepower left for Irenicus.”
Egeria nodded again. “I shall open the way for you without further delay,” she said, “and return to my fencing lesson. No doubt Eilistraee will have constructive criticism of my less than perfect performance.”
“As long as you learn from it,” Buffy said.
“I shall endeavor to do so,” Egeria said, “and I look forward to further training from you also.” She strode across the courtyard to the door of the palace, took hold of the handle, and opened it without effort. She raised her eyebrows. “Ingenious,” she said. “It seemed almost as if the ward had been keyed to me specifically.”
“I guess Irenicus thought Bodhi might drop in to visit,” Willow said. Her normally pleasant expression took on a hint of feral ferocity. “Well, he’s going to get guests who aren’t so friendly.”
“Damn right,” Spike said. “Thanks, Egeria, see you around.”
“Farewell,” Egeria said. She walked into the nearest patch of shadow, as the others bade her goodbye, and began to fade from sight. After a few seconds she had vanished completely.
“Be more impressive if she flew off,” Spike observed. “Up, up, and away! She could always find some shadow after she was out of sight, or even use the Earth’s – sorry, Toril’s – shadow.”
“I might suggest it to her next time I see her,” Buffy said. “By the way, good work with that shielding spell, Edwin. I don’t think any of the rest of us saw that light thing coming.”
“Ah, yes, another example of my remarkable prescience,” Edwin said. “So, the diminutive, yet undeniably attractive, warrior maid recognizes my true worth,” he added, as usual oblivious to the fact that his monologues could be heard by all. “I find that… oddly pleasing.”
Buffy pretended not to hear. “Okay, guys,” she addressed the party as a whole. “This is where we split up. Only those of us who were at Spellhold are going in.”
“But we want to help,” said Nalia.
“It would be un-knightly of us to leave you to stand alone against your greatest foe,” said Mazzy Fentan. Sir William Reirac and Lady Irlana voiced the same sentiment.
“Irenicus is a blight upon the natural world,” said Cernd the Druid, “and I would aid my colleague Jaheira in cleansing his taint.”
“No, guys, it has to be this way,” Buffy insisted. “Tell them, Willow.”
“Irenicus has a spell, we think it’s called Rapture of the Father, that can get past any normal defense and kill instantly,” Willow explained. “We saw him take out six wizards with it at Spellhold and they were warded up to the eyeballs against all the usual attacks. I’ve gotten hold of two scrolls that should protect us, I’m pretty sure, but they’ll only cover twelve of us. Spike should be immune, on account of already being dead, but the rest of us will have to rely on the scrolls. We just can’t risk taking anyone else along. Sorry.”
Jarlaxle pursed his lips. “I am resistant to magic,” he said, “but perhaps not against such a spell thrown by an Archmage. Very well, I accept your reason and will stay behind.”
“Sir Xander is protected by the Holy Avenger Carsomyr,” Sir William pointed out, “and thus there would be room for one more.”
Xander shook his head. “Only when I’m holding it, Sir William,” he said, “and I might want to throw Azuredge at him. Especially if he’s levitating or whatever. If your sword is a Holy Avenger then we might let you come but, otherwise, we can’t let you take the risk.”
“Alas my sword, although enchanted, does not have the power of a Holy Avenger,” Sir William admitted. “Very well, then, we shall stay, although it sits ill with me to let a fellow Knight of the Order face such a foe without my company.”
“Will I still get a share of any magic items you retrieve?” Edwin asked.
Buffy grinned. “You’ve pulled your weight so far, Eddie, that’s for sure,” she confirmed. “Yeah, you and Nalia will get an equal share with Willow and Imoen.”
“In that case I will do as you request,” Edwin said.
“We do have a task for you all,” Sorkatani said. “I fear that, in our absence, Duke Elhan may take vengeance upon the Drow prisoners. I would like you to ensure that that does not happen and that there are no summary executions.”
“Ye’re ower soft, lassie,” said Korgan, “but ah’ll dae whit ye askit. There micht yet be a muckle beastie or twa tae kill.”
“It is likely that our services could still be of use in freeing some remaining hostages,” said Jarlaxle, “and I may be able to end such situations without conflict. If not then our Dwarven friend doubtless will get the chance to indulge his desire for violence. However any whom I persuade to surrender will be under my protection. To allow harm to befall them, if I gave my word to the contrary, would be shameful.”
Artemis Entreri merely nodded agreement. Sir William Reirac, however, was more vocal in his support.
“Well said, sir Drow,” the knight praised. “Indeed it would be dishonorable for those offered quarter not to receive it. It may be that some of those captured deserve death for their actions while the city was in their hands, but others do not, and none shall be slain without fair trial while I live. This I vow upon my honor as a Knight of the Radiant Heart.”
“As do I,” Lady Irlana added. The rest of the group added their own assurances; even Edwin, although his motivation seemed mainly to be based on a suspicion that not to do so might result in him being excluded from a share of any magical items recovered from Irenicus.
“Thanks, everyone,” Buffy said. “Okay, guys, let’s do this.” She and Sorkatani led the way into the palace and the other Spellhold survivors followed.
Song lyrics quoted in this chapter are from ‘We’re Off to See the Wizard’ (lyrics E Y ‘Yip’ Harburg, amended by me to suit the context) from ‘The Wizard of Oz’ and ‘Nice to Be Here’ (Ray Thomas) by The Moody Blues. A snatch of dialogue from ‘The Princess Bride’ (William Goldman) is (mis)quoted by Xander. They are used without permission and for non-commercial purposes only.