Thursday, September 21, 2017

Chapter Twenty-eight: Standing at the Gates of Hell(Part One)



"Angry?" Tori's voice wavered. "Belthor, I'm no one's quitter, but I can barely stand. I can't go another round and expect to win."

"We don't have to kill him," Belthor protested. "We have to force him back through the portal. We just need to close it, now."

"He's on this side," Agnete protested. "Killing him in the material world leaves his essence in the material world. And we cannot lure him back through the portal - there's no way he's foolish enough to fall for any trick we can muster."

"How can we force him back through, then?" Belthor demanded. 

"There is no way," Agnete said. "We can fight him until we drop from exhaustion, and even when we strike him down, he will reappear in moments where we slew him." She leaned on a tree. "And I do not have a second round in me any more than Tori does."

"Neither of us have staffs any more," Sam pointed out. "We can close the portal with a big enough surge of energy, but only if we can get that energy inside it and tear it open from within - and that's going to be pointless if all we do is destroy our only way to lock Char away."

"But we can't make him go in!" Agnete sucked in air. "This is all my fault. I did this...what was I thinking? Now, because of me, we are stuck facing a foe we cannot defeat-"

"You're forgetting something, Agnete. There is a way."

Belthor turned to regard Walker. The big man stood very still in the cloud of debris, tinted red by the lights in the sky above like everything else. 

"What are you talking about?" Belthor asked him. "Agnete's the expert. She said there's no way-"

"No. She said there was." Walker's eyes were dark. "Char likes possessing people. That's what he tried and do to Tori, wasn't it?"

"Yes," Agnete said. Her eyes widened a moment later. "No. You cannot be serious."

"He possesses someone, and you strike that someone down. What happens to Char?" Walker shook his head. "He gets sent back to his room."

"What are you suggesting?" Belthor demanded. "That we give him someone? That we kill this person and-"

"We ain't all leaving this plateau," Walker replied, voice low. "Someone's got to be the bait, son. Someone has to draw him in and let him take over, and then the rest of you've got to finish off that someone and put a fire under closing that door to Hell."

"That's not an option," Belthor insisted.

"It's the only option." Walker shrugged. "I've died before. It ain't so bad. Never with a god in my bones, though, so I figure this one'll be a new adventure."

"But...no!" Belthor stared through wide eyes. "Walker-"

"Just so we're clear, I ain't askin' your permission," the big man said. "If a man wants to die for some crap he don't even believe in, that's his gods-given right, ain't it? And I would know, I think, about dyin' for stupid stuff. I've done it more than you." He cracked a smile. "Killin' me ain't killed me yet."

"Belthor...he's right," Sam murmured. "We can't stop Char any other way."

"Maybe you are right, but you are also wrong!" Agnete shook her head wildly. "This is my mess! I did this, not you! If anyone is sacrificing her soul to save this world, it should be me! Not you, who tried to stop me from getting this far-"

"You ain't gonna come back, though, is you?" Walker asked. "Only logic, Frosty. And besides, you've got that magic mumbo in your veins. What's the god gonna do to Team Stupid over here if he takes you over?" He snorted. "Protec flicked me around like a ragdoll, so I figure even idiots like Belthor, Tori and Sam can probably take care of me if you help 'em out a ton, sweets."

"But..." Agnete stared through wide eyes.

"We'll find another way," Belthor insisted. "I...I'll do it-"

"No. You've got to close the door, ain't you?" Walker asked. "I can't do none of that. And of the people on this bluff, who's got a staff left?"

"...Agnete can use it-"

"How're you going to get that much power in the damn thing, kid?" Walker asked. "You gonna blow bubbles when you're in there? She ain't never been a living battery before. Maybe it's easy, maybe it ain't, but tagging in a rookie when the fate of the world's in the balance never seemed a good half-time strategy change to me."

"Aye." Sam nodded slowly. "He's right again, Bel. The door is us."

"Which means you lovely ladies get to go to town on me," Walker said, glancing to Tori and Agnete. "Fire and ice. There's worse ways to spend a night." He managed a smile that belied his coarse words. "Don't hold back none. Promise me?"

Tori sniffed. "Okay."

Agnete shook her head. "I have to do this. I have to atone-"

"I ain't giving you that option, girl," Walker replied.

"You don't have to do this," Belthor said: his final attempt to wring sense out of the horror his life had become. "Walker-"

"Figure I'm alive for some fool reason," the man said. "If it was so I can actually go to Hell like so many people have suggested...I hear the weather's much warmer than this. I'll send you postcards." 

"The instant Char takes him over, we have to take him out," Tori said. "Sam, you and Belthor wait for your moment. Don't interfere. Especially you." She poked Sam hard. "You'll have to give Belthor every volt you have."

"Yes, ma'am." Sam met her eyes levelly. 

"But you can't do anything until I'm good and gone," Walker insisted. "Let the ladies finish the job. Then close that damn door and make at least one of my deaths mean something." He glanced at Agnete. "You've got destiny, elf-girl. You may not see it now, but you have destiny. I can see it swirling around your shoulders. The kid over there's gonna get you sorted straight out when this is over, just you wait and see."

Agnete couldn't make a sound. She moved her lips, though, and it only took Belthor a moment to realize what six letters she was mouthing over and over again.

The dark smoke started to pull inward toward the portal. Belthor sucked in breath as it began to spiral back into the miasmic cloud that had assaulted Tori, the glowing pinpricks of Char's hateful eyes looming in the dark.

"Well, then." Walker cracked his neck. "I guess that's the bell." He turned to Belthor. "I'll find you, when I come back. You hear that? This ain't the last you've heard of me."

"I...hope not." Belthor tried very hard not to weep, at least while Walker was looking. He knew he was failing, but the yawning sense of emptiness in his chest defied any attempt to subdue or conceal it.

I failed. He knew no one else would see it that way, but in his eyes...

"Keep out of trouble." Walker gave him and his friends one smile: a genuine, honest smile, without a trace of his trademark glare.

Then he turned, and he took ten deliberate strides toward Char.

"Hey!" he cried. "You takin' on new joiners, Mister Lord of Hell? It's occurring to me that I'd kind of like to live!"

Char's smoke whirled. Walker laughed once.

"I'm right here," he said. "Come and take me."

The darkness enveloped him in a mad rush. Belthor covered his eyes, and Tori and Agnete both winced. Sam set his teeth.

Then the smoke was gone, pouring inward, and all that was left was Walker.

Walker and his new black-glowing eyes.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Chapter Twenty-seven: Five Against One(Part Two)



Belthor covered his face with his staff as Char's fire seared around him. He slid backward, and he cried out as sweat burst from every pore on his body. The scent of burning was everywhere and everything. He gagged and tasted the pancakes Tori had made for breakfast so many years ago. 

"Bel!" A redheaded figure appeared between him and Char, staff whirling and blasts of light splitting the night. "Leave him alone!"

Char twitched as several blasts of power hit him in the face. His assault ground to a halt as he inhaled, recoiling while Tori advanced. Belthor raised his own staff and joined in despite the aching in his bones and the fear in his veins, shooting and spitting power and light as fast as he could. Maybe, even if they couldn't break his skin, they could at least disorient him-

He collapsed. The god collapsed before their eyes, and a great plume of shadow rose in his place. Instead of a dragon, on came a rush of darkness with eyes buried in its depths, enveloping Tori in a black miasma.

"No!" She sounded like she was choking. She held her staff up, light blasting from it in all directions, but it did no good. On Char came still.

"Tori!" Sam fired lightning into the darkness, and the electricity cracked from one patch to the next as if the shadows were water. A disembodied howl of fury more than pain split the air, and then Belthor joined in with a surge of light of his own, again wishing he had a Rune of Klamnet. The weak lights he could summon were nothing compared to what a wizard with the God of Light's blessing might create-

The darkness withdrew for a moment, but then it came rushing back, and Tori held her staff up higher. The tool glowed bright white, lines running from end to end and around it in circles-
Boom!
 
Tori's staff exploded, sending fragments flying in all directions. One embedded itself in Belthor's shoulder, and he cried out, though the redhead's scream was the dominant noise after the blast.

"Get off of her!" Agnete joined the assault with a storm of ice and winter wind, and the darkness withdrew toward the portal, leaving the ground smoking and charred in its wake. From the cloud, Char's head and neck appeared, then his arms and legs, as though he were climbing from a smoke-shrouded hole in the earth. 

"Tori-" Belthor grabbed her where she lay in the snow, pulling flaming splinters from her palms and cheeks. "Tori, let me-"

"Forget me, get him-"

"Nerien," Belthor invoked, and Tori hissed in pain. But the splinters ejected from her body in a flash of white light, and her bloody wounds sealed. Belthor helped her to her feet-

"Get down!" Agnete raised a wall of ice, which bought them almost five whole seconds as Char's next surge of flame came for them. Belthor pulled Tori down into a little rocky cave as the flames shattered Agnete's ice and melted stone into slag. 

"We can't do this," Tori gasped, clutching her perforated arm. Belthor reached for it, but she pulled away. "Save your strength! Every bit you spend on me is a bit you can't spend on him."

The fire ceased, abruptly. Char roared in fury, and Belthor heard the crackling of lightning. He took a breath.

"Can you stand?"

"I can eat his fire if I have to," Tori replied. She gamely crawled into open air right alongside Belthor, coughing out soot. He took her in: scarred, bloody, her coat lacerated and half-burned, her skin scraped raw and red under it, soot coating every exposed inch of her. The redhead's glasses were probably somewhere back on campus, or immolated on the plateau.

And still her violet eyes had no give in them: just a sick understanding of the unrealistic nature of their aims.

"It may be impossible," she whispered, making it to her feet, "but damn it if I'm not going to try anyway. I'm stupid like that."

"I'm sorry I befriended you," Belthor told her, in complete honesty. "You wouldn't be here if I hadn't-"

"And who would be covering your back, then?" Tori asked. "You'd be dead, Belthor Spellweaver, and you know it."

"Probably," he admitted. "But you and Sam would live."

"Yeah, for maybe two whole hours. Oohh." She waved her hands. "At least this way, we get to be in the cursed kids' club in the afterlife: we died fighting the inevitable dominion of the Forgotten Lord of Hell first."

"Thank you." Belthor managed a thin smile. 

"What else are friends for if they won't face the grinding onslaught of Hell at your side?" Tori asked, and she looked like it was an honest question.

Walker threw his shattered sword aside. He scaled Char's back, dropping from one spike to the next as the demon slapped at his spine with one huge hand. Before Char could hit again, Walker dropped, landing in the snow with one hand out.

"Left! Go left!" Agnete hurled a new wicked sword of ice, and Walker caught it left-handed, flipping it overhead for a downward strike right onto Char's foot. Belthor had a perfect view as the big man's strike clove one of the god's toes clean off. 

"Now!" Walker threw himself backward as Char lashed out, howling in pain, and Agnete jumped over his prone form, ice flying from her hands right into the wound. A bluish glow suffused the god's entire foot, and icicles burst from below his scales, flinging black blood every which way. Char's howl grew ever louder, and rocks fell on all sides.

"Belthor!" Agnete dove away next, and the initiate took a breath, summoning his staff to hand again as he bolted at Char. He swung overhead like Walker, evading a swipe from the dragon god's hand, and the power of his staff cracked like thunder when it hit the frozen foot.

With a great tearing crash, the entire thing shattered like glass. Char collapsed, shooting flame in a great torrent while he struggled to right himself. 

"Give me a boost!" Walker tore forward, Agnete hurling him a second sword. "Sam, Tori-"

"On it-" Sam caught the redhead's hand and hauled her up to the highest point he could spot. Belthor spun to see Walker racing right for Char with both his blades at his sides-

"Going up!" He flicked his staff, and Walker hurtled into the air, spinning himself around with surprising dexterity, both weapons flashing. He drove them into Char's neck on both sides, up to their hilts, and the god recoiled-

Belthor saw his opportunity.

"Coming down!" he cried, yanking his staff backward. Walker shot toward him like a projectile, and his grip on the swords never wavered.

The power of magic and gravity alike ripped both frozen blades through Char's throat in the same instant.

It wasn't enough. Belthor could see that alone, that wasn't enough. Maybe Char didn't even breathe through that part of his neck. Who knew? And he was a god anyway, even if a weak, forgotten one.

Agnete ran along the beast's back, sinking her claws into his neck and sliding down to the wound with ice shooting from her palms. Just like with his foot, it wormed into the incision across Char's throat, and half his long neck turned blue-white in a matter of seconds. It went as far up as his head, and no matter how stiff his movements became, Belthor clearly saw his pupils dilate.

"Now!" Agnete let herself fall, and lightning and fire replaced her on the demon's neck. Sam and Tori screamed with effort, and the barrage resulted in a series of explosions and a wave of black blood that ate a hole straight in the edge of the plateau. Belthor ducked as drops sprayed over him.

He hurled his staff like a javelin, and it slammed into the god's head, right below his eye. Belthor had the pleasure of watching Char's eyes widen before impact, and well-deserved it was: his head completely exploded, spraying ice and blood and scales in all directions. 

With a shrieking roar, Char collapsed, smoke and dust and snow flying into the air on all sides, Belthor heard his friends coughing, even as his own lungs protested the surge.

Silence otherwise reigned.

"Did we kill him?" Tori's voice asked, ringing faintly in the dark. She stumbled into view, clutching her arm and leaning on Sam for support. He looked in little better shape than her, with his hair scattered and sticking up in odd shapes, with lightning coursing over his arms in little bursts.

"I don't see him-" Agnete had cuts all over her face, and burn marks on her hands, but she didn't seem to notice. She clutched a shield of ice close, looking around wildly. "I don't see him. I don't hear him."

"I think he's dead." Walker loomed before them.

A loud rumble was the reply to that.

"No," Belthor whispered. "No. We didn't kill him. We just made him angry."

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Chapter Twenty-seven: Five Against One(Part One)



Char bellowed again, spitting smoke. Belthor sucked in a breath as the Forgotten Lord of Hell rent the ground with his claws, as if daring the wizards to approach.

Walker was first, bounding up onto a rock and then forward with ice sword flashing. Char swung one huge hand and swatted him from the air, but the big man seemed less hurt and more miffed as he hit the ground in a crouch, sliding across the plateau. 

Then lightning filled the air as Sam engaged. Char reared, covering his head from the successive waves of power boring into him.

"Go!" Belthor shouted, and then Tori and Agnete were at his sides as he charged. From his left fire surged, and from his right Agnete hurled icicles that could have impaled trolls. Belthor held his staff two-handed, flicking rock and snow upward in a great tide. 

Char's hand flashed. Belthor slid under the swipe, but Agnete flew with a cry. She rolled in the snow, then came back to her feet with sickness and terror in her wide white eyes. Ice coated her arms and formed a cocoon around her as Char shrieked and struck downward, fists clenched and falling like hammers. Agnete screamed as her bubble cracked dangerously.

"Get off!" Belthor struck the god's leg, and that made Char wobble. He roared as if affronted by the attack, then drove his claws into the snow all around Belthor. He raised his staff to hold the demon's palm above his head, and power rebounded around him on all sides.

He held him for all of two seconds. Then the strain became too much, and he prepared to be squished like an insect-

It was hot. Char retreated, and Belthor saw Tori with both hands spewing flame, immolating the god's wrist. He reared on his hind legs, beating on his chest like an ape-

Fire rained from above, and Belthor dove away with a most un-manly scream. He ducked under the first rock he found, covering his head as best he could. The rock glowed red, and Belthor saw Tori in the blinding lightshow. Somehow, the Gifted girl seemed only mildly affected by the heat.

"That doesn't work on me!" And then her staff flashed, and the edge of the walls around the plateau cracked and shattered. Boulders rained on Char from above, clobbering him around his head and shoulders. He winced, lowering his body to the ground like an animal.

Walker appeared from nowhere, flipping onto Char's back and driving his blade into the gap between two scales. The Father of Dragons howled, a sound that drove knives into Belthor's ears and sent trees flying, ripped up by the roots. Every animal for miles had to be fleeing as fast as it could, and the initiate suspected there were a couple of new avalanches in the mountains.

Then he lunged, jabbing with his staff, and was rewarded as he clipped the demon on the tooth. Char flinched from the detonation of power, vomiting sparks. He lashed out with one hand, and though he missed, the wind from his strike flung Belthor on his back regardless.

"Ah!" The young man rolled sideways, staff lost in the snow, as the god's head drove into the rock where he had just laid, teeth snapping. He flung himself both ways as Char's hands came down around him now.

Then he was suddenly cold: very cold. Belthor cried out as he was yanked backward on a sled that hadn't been there a moment before, one that carried him right up to Agnete's feet. She raised her hand and his staff launched itself after him, snapping into her palm.

"Thanks." Belthor scrambled upright.

"Take it." Agnete pressed the rod back into his hands, and the instant she no longer held it, the drow bounded forward onto all fours, flinging herself up onto Char and sinking her claws into his eyelid.
Whether it was thick enough to prevent her reaching his eye or not, the god seemed extremely unhappy with this turn of events. Belthor gaped as he saw black blood rain instead of red, every drop hissing and eating through snow.

"Agnete!" Sam cried, as he skidded through the snow. He stuck his hands out, and blue lightning split the night air, arcing right into the monster's other eye. Char snarled, digging his fingers under the rock and pulling his hands up, literally flipping half the plateau over onto Sam. The Gifted initiate's face went white as tons of rock descended on him-

"Gotcha!" Tori's staff flashed, and the ground beneath Sam moved. He flew to safety, landing on his back behind the redhead. She held her rod up as Char spat more flame their way, splitting the tongue of fire in two as Sam scrambled upright. 

Agnete screamed as Char reared to his full height, whirling his head around madly. She clutched his scaly eyelid tightly, but Belthor knew she couldn't hold on. Char spun around in a circle, and the drow finally lost her grip, soaring for the rock-

"Agnete!" He jabbed his staff into the rock, and the detonation flung him into the air. He caught the girl from the side, wrapping his arms around her and diverting her path from the rocks. Together they slammed into a snowbank, sinking in deep.

"Get out of there!" Walker ripped through the snow, catching Agnete's arm first and pulling her into the air. She spat snow, knees wobbling but eyes hard. Belthor followed her, and if he leaned on his staff and his own knees weren't entirely steady, could anyone blame him?

Agnete had courage. She tore right back into the fray, ice blades freezing onto her wrists. Tori shot fire and Sam unleashed lightning, and Char recoiled for a moment.

"Call me a sap, but I'm kind of wishing she'd not taken Hastel," Walker said. "If his brother had been here..."

"Agreed." Belthor coughed. "For all his other flaws, Theron was no man's coward. He'd be hammering on this demon for all he was worth too, and maybe he'd be the edge we need."

"I wasn't thinkin' that kind of fancy," Walker objected. "I was just thinkin' that you wouldn't nearly object to throwing Theron in the portal to Hell like a dog bone and lettin' Char have his soul so we could lock him back in."

Belthor would have liked to object to that with some statement about the sanctity of all life, but he supposed the stranger had a better read on his opinion of Theron than he himself did. All he could do was mumble incoherently and shrug in defeat.

"Watch out!" He shoved Walker, and both of them fell opposite ways as Char's fist came down like judgment from on high. Belthor spun into a crouch, staff upraised, as the demon loomed in front of him, hissing and snarling like a teapot crossed with a particularly angry dog and set to boil.

"Last chance," Belthor heard someone much braver than he saying with his voice. "I'll happily accept your surrender."

Char's roar was mocking, in how it shook the earth and knocked snow from the trees. He reared, beating his chest again, and with every blow sparks and fire flew from his nostrils. He spread his arms wide and crashed onto all six of his limbs again, eyes glowing with derision as Belthor's knees knocked and he found himself skittering backward.

"S-so be it," Belthor said, unsure how he managed not to whimper. "You should know y-you brought this on your...yourself."

And then there was only fire as Char immolated him.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Chapter Twenty-six: Snowdrop



Agnete felt Sam's struggles below her hand. She cared nothing for them, but she felt them.

Walker was fighting her golems. So was Tori. She didn't think they'd seen what had happened to Belthor, nor would it have mattered if they did. With him out of the equation, and Sam moments from defeat, the two of them had no hope to prevail.

Agnete's victory was imminent. And the thing was, she had forgotten all about that.

Sam cried out, unable to sustain his lightning any longer. He dropped his arms, and Agnete thought he winced. She wasn't paying attention, so she supposed he could have started dancing for all she knew or cared.

Gently, she set Belthor's staff down, while Sam gasped for air. He said something...Agnete didn't know what. She wasn't listening. 

With her now-free hand, she reached out, and from Belthor's frozen fingers, she took the single snowdrop blossom, bright and beautiful in its vitality, even in the white of winter. She sucked in a great breath looking at it, a hollow hole eating away at her heart.

Because the flower was half-frozen and ripped up by its roots. That it might have been Belthor's doing was her first thought, but no. No, it looked liked...like...

Agnete's eyes traced the lines she'd cut into the cliff. 

I uprooted it. She stared at her favorite flower, clutching it tenderly, feeling tears behind her eyes.
She looked out at Tori, flames searing out as she battled golems. 

Walker shattering them with his fists and a face of fury.

Sam on the ground, clutching his arms where they were perforated with the superheated fragments of his own staff.

And finally, Agnete looked up at Belthor's frozen face.

What price are you willing to...

***

Belthor cried out as the ice shattered, all at once. He fell to his hands and knees, shivering - only for someone to catch him mid-fall, something else shattering and collapsing off of her, too.

"I'm sorry!" Agnete cried, as her pauldron and helm of ice disintegrated. Tears ran from her eyes as she tried to keep Belthor from falling, her fingers cold but the look of complete horror and shame coating her face sending even deeper chills through his veins. "I'm so sorry. Belthor, I'm sorry-"

"The golems!" Belthor managed to keep his footing. "Agnete, the golems-"

"I'm sorry!" she repeated, almost at a shriek, a wild light in her eyes. The golems paused all at once, and though Walker couldn't resist punching another one into shards, the rest simply collapsed of their own accord.

"I didn't mean to go this far! I just..." Agnete clutched her hair. "I just..." She screamed. "I did it! I summoned Char and..." Despair rang in her voice like a bell. "What have I done?"

"Hey!" Belthor caught her shoulders. "It's all right!"

"No, it's not!" Agnete's head twitched. "Sam! I'm so sorry-" She pulled out of Belthor's grip to take the Gifted initiate's hand. She pulled him to his feet. "I proved them all right, didn't I? I really am a dark and vengeful savage-"

"No!" Sam cut Belthor off before he even had a chance to speak. "What matters is you saw the light before it was too late. We'll work the rest of it out later. The gods know Belthor and the rest of us did some things we can't take back on the way here."

"Did you summon the Forgotten Lord of Hell?" Agnete demanded, quivering.

"We blasted Masters Protec and Vignette into next week," Tori said, joining the gathering. "So that's close."

"Oi." Walker kicked Hastel's icy bonds, and he burst free with a grateful sob. The young man skittered away from Agnete, fear in his eyes. "What about that, then? Group hug session comes later." He pointed to the red glow in the sky. "We got problems up here for now."

"What's the ritual?" Belthor demanded. "How's he coming?"

"I swore fresh blood and a soul to him. All I had to do was pour it on the ground and keep his sacrifice where he could find it until he was ready."

Belthor whipped his head around to regard Hastel. He glanced at the red running down his arm. "Agnete, tell me you didn't. Tell me you didn't." 

The earth shook and the red redoubled in the sky, painting the plateau like sunset. Belthor took in a shallow breath as Agnete let out a strangled sob.

"It's too late," she whispered. "He's here."

A vortex appeared in the center of the plateau: a spiraling weave of energy in the air, spitting red sparks. Belthor exhaled softly.

"Run," Agnete ordered. "It's all you can do. Char is unstoppable when-"

"Like hell." Belthor stuck out his hand. His staff snapped into it, and he drove the tool into the snow. "This is my world. Char gets loose, we all die sooner or later. If there's a fool's chance in Hell of stopping him here and now, I'm fool enough to take it. And if there's no chance...at least we get it over with quickly, and acquit ourselves with honor."

"Now you're speaking my language," Walker said. He kicked one of the golems. "Frost Queen. A sword."

"What?" Agnete blinked, but then she held out her hand and ice formed a long, wicked blade with a nasty curve. 

"What can you tell us about him? You're the expert." Belthor grabbed Sam's arm. "Nerien."

"He...he is the Father of Dragons," Agnete said. "He is vicious and cruel, and revels in hand-to-hand combat and displays of his prowess. He is not particularly fond of speaking to any he considers his lesser."
 
"Which is?" Tori asked.

"Everyone except the Mother of Dragons."

"Ah." 

"Not my experience," Walker grunted, "but I'll defer to the resident expert. Gods love to talk. It's their whole shtick. Mumbo mumbo prophecy power chosen one blah blah blah. If this bloke's actually a mute deity, I might have to owe him a drink before I kill his ass dead."

"He has powers of possession and compulsion," Agnete continued. "He is a demonic dragon, after all. He is fond of fire, but not immune to it. He can spit it, and smoke and shadow are his allies. He has a particular hatred for wizard-kind, especially those with Runes of gods he considers soft. Ezraval and Nerien in particular. Love and Healing he considers unworthy of veneration."

"How do we kill him?" Sam asked. Lightning crackled over his hands.

"It...no one has done it," Agnete replied, voice low. "The only way he has ever been unwillingly banished is if his host body is killed while he is in possession of someone...and then for the portal to be closed after he has been forced back into Hell, but before he can return to the mortal world."

"Right. I remember portal class." Tori let out a breath. "Since we can't talk him into closing his own portal - wasn't that the first way?"

"Yes," Sam replied. "You're thinking of the second solution."

"A massive energy surge in the space between ends," Tori agreed. "Which requires entering the thing with all that power in tow and unleashing it from the inside."

"The inside being Hell," Walker pointed out. He flipped his sword around. "I'm in."

"He's the Father of Dragons, right?" Belthor asked. Agnete nodded, and the initiate laughed. "Good. Fortunately for us, we have the heir to a house of dragon-hunters right here to-" 

He broke off as he saw Hastel, staff in hand, bolting down the passageway back to the valley and the School. "Gods! Why am I...why am I even surprised?"
 
"Don't got a clue," Walker said. "I could have told you that one was coming."

"We don't need him," Tori said. She tossed her staff to herself. "Hastel's an ass."

"You don't have to stay either," Belthor started.

"Lay off," Tori ordered. "Sam and I were here at the start, and if this ends in a blaze of glory standing against a monster tearing out of Hell, then we'll be here for that too." Sam nodded in agreement, though he paused to pull his coat up and fiddle with his device.

"No." Agnete shook her head. "This is my fault. All my fault. You shouldn't risk your lives to clean up my mistake-"

"You're our friend." Belthor turned to meet her eyes. "We let you down, or you never would have gone this far. Consider it making amends."

"You have no amends to-"

"We're going nowhere, Agnete," Tori said gently. "You can either accept that and fight with us, or you can panic about it - but we're staying and standing against this creature with you either way."

The weave ripped open into a doorway hanging in space, nothing but red light and dark miasma visible on the other side. Smoke leaked from it, filling the air. 

From the other side emerged a massive triangular head, all black with horns the size of horses, eyes as red as blood, and black clouds pouring from its nostrils. A long neck followed, and then two huge arms with four fingers each. Char's body was as black as his head, save a grayish streak running over his arms and then down his spiked spine. Four enormous muscled legs came next, sinking claws into the snow of the plateau. He had only a short stub for a tail.

Char looked around through eyes full of hate and glee at the same time, and he opened his reptilian mouth to taste the air. He stretched his neck out, shaking his head side-to-side like a cat...until his gaze fixed on Belthor and his friends. 

Char regarded them for a long moment. Then he stretched his back, rearing up onto his hind legs to tower at almost twenty meters tall.

He roared, vomiting a cone of red and orange fire into the sky like a challenge. The sound shook the earth and rang in Belthor's ears, ripping at his soul and making him think of irons and knives and all the tortures that could be inflicted at the hands of a true sadist. Char's gaze of hate lowered, as if he was seeking a response.

Belthor Spellweaver leveled his staff. On his right stood Agnete with ice coating her arms, and beside her was Sam, lightning coursing over his. On his left was Walker with his ice sword and a scowl, and then Tori with her staff in one hand and flames in the other.

"Five against one," Walker growled. "I like these odds."