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Chapter 79

Page history last edited by Anonymoose 5 years, 8 months ago

Only a few minutes ago the cavern served as the cradle for The Crone's designs, now it was the site of a circus. The lair was once pulsating with foul energies and menacing with dark intent. Now it was a stage for Rose, Chris, Shoshanah to argue on while Minte did a balancing act behind them. They had barged in heroically but were mimicking a Three Stooges skit rather than staging a daring rescue. Hundreds of witches looked on in abject confusion. Even Ba'el and I had long since slipped from the center of attention. Neither of us could do anything aside from stare on like everyone else.

 

I think I was the only individual in the entire room who had fully processed what was going on in front of me. Being able to figure out what the hell was going on in a situation like this was never something I wanted. It made me feel left out.

 

As their argument became more heated by the second, steam begun rising from The Crone's ears. It was her party, but she had fallen into the background like a paltry opening act for the main event. Red and Black fled for their lives when the ancient witch flipped the table before her and everything on it went along for the ride. The clatter of wood, breaking of glass and wasting of food was finally enough to break the deadlock argument raging among her party crashers.

 

     “What is the meaning of this!?” She screamed, her patience long since evaporated.

 

Chris was the first one to turn and face the Crone. Rose stayed back, satisfied to just throw the witch a mean glace for interrupting her mid sentence. Shoshanah tried in vain to stop the wyvern before she started talking. There wasn't anything that was going to stop her when she did. She got no help from Minte who was still standing awkwardly on one leg. Her efforts to keep their original plan going were admirable, but the motions of her antenna forewarned me that she was indeed ready for action at the drop of a hat.

 

In all their bedlam, it was the second worst person who could be speaking for them that addressed the fuming witch.

 

     Chris puffed out her ample chest and commanded, “We are here to stop your nefarious plans, villain!”

 

She threw her right wing and claw out with flair to point dramatically toward The Crone.

 

     “Release your prisoners at once and you will be-”

 

     “Be quiet you bumbling simpleton!” Susan shouted from behind the wyvern's back. “Our original plan was to-”

 

The anubis's voice became muffled behind the great wyvern's back and was drowned out when she resumed to shout out in her booming voice.

 

     “Your followers will be spared, if only you turn yourself in!”

 

At least she had taken her advice to heart. It didn't stop Shoshanah from continuing to simmer behind Chris.

 

     The Crone didn't miss a beat, “Surrender? Never!”

 

The sound of steel and leather echoed in the cavern as Rose drew her sword from the scabbard on her back.

 

     “Diplomacy has failed!”

 

There was a tinge of feigned distress in her voice, yet she couldn't hide the eagerness in it while she dropped down into an aggressive stance. Her tail's flame popped and erupted. Embers sprayed forth like an agitated campfire which betrayed her excitement. The crackle of fire was matched by a buzzing and low hum from the magical energies swirling around the wands and staves belonging to dozens of witches. I could still pick out Shoshanah's audible exasperation through all the chaos.

 

     “Calm yourself, you battle glutinous moron!” Susan shouted, trying to speak over the uproarious din spiraling out of her control.

 

     The Crone's voice was heavy with haughtiness, “You lot must be with that man. I thought of you as dangerous warriors, not fools. Do you believe the four of you stand a chance in stopping us?”

 

Chris's mighty talon stomped into the earth. With her wings she began to take pose after pose and shadow box and kick the air... She was performing her war dance and 'hero of justice' shtick again.

 

     “A hundred witches or three times that, it doesn't matter, Crone!” Chris said with genuine confidence. “You sealed your end when you forsook justice! Now her agents have arrived to dispense the righteous end to your foul crusade against the innocents of this land.”

 

And there she goes. On and on Chris begun to drone. Even I phased out for a few seconds, only to snap back to attention when I saw something stir out of the corner of my eye.

 

     “-If you think you can prevail, you'll only prolong your inevitable clash with the world as it approaches balance. A balance in which the lives of The Marches continue on-”

 

The Crone's patience ran out. With a wave of her hand she directed the large hat wearing lieutenants near her to ready themselves and take aim. It was a subtle and underhanded motion; I didn't notice it until I saw the light pulse off the wand and staff of two witches. Chris was too wrapped up in her act that she didn't notice, and it was too late for me to yell out. A barrage of white missiles not so dissimilar from fireworks streaked and screamed across the sky. They impacted against the ground where the wyvern stood. Her tall frame and wide green wings vanished behind a flash of light and cloud of dust and rocky debris the resulting explosion kicked up.

 

I threw my arm up in front of my eyes on reflex, but I couldn't save my ears from the head-splitting echo which bounced around the interior of the cavern. The lingering ear piercing explosion hung around almost as long as the cloud of dust it kicked up. As the dust cleared and settled, and granules of sand and pebbles rained back down, so too were the smug grins on the faces of the witches wiped clean.

 

Standing tall and unbowed at the center of the explosion was Chris. Her pastel pink hair was tousled, covered in grey soot, and her skin and scales had patches of black soot all over it. Other than a few superficial scratches, the wyvern had not been harmed at all. Her head was slumped forward, and a shadow was spread across her eyes. Chris's talons clenched and raked across the pot marked limestone. I watched and heard them gouging little canyons in the cavern floor. The grinding sound replaced the silence and sound of falling debris and put a premature end to any celebration from the audience.

 

I turned back around and got one clear look at The Crone and her lieutenants. They expected more from that, perhaps they expected that was all they had to do. Their leader's furious and now unsubtle hand waves urged and commanded them to prepare another volley. I knew better.

 

     With a hand on Ba'el's shoulder to get her attention, I urged her with a whisper, “Get out of the way.”

 

She turned her head up to me with a confused expression on her face.

 

     “Huh?”

 

     I didn't think we had time for me to repeat myself, so I grabbed hold of the little demon and shouted, “Get down!”

 

I threw my weight on the unsuspecting Ba'el, so we both went tumbling to the ground together. She swore as I did so and swore even louder when I landed on top of her. As we both rolled clear, the wyvern's voice became a growl instead of a steadfast and heroic diatribe against injustice. I heard her lungs fill with air even as far as away as I was. When our roll ended, I looked back just in time to see Chris's head whip back, her hair tossing and shaking the grey soot free. She stomped forward, digging her one talon back into the earth. Chris threw her head forward, mouth opened wide. The glowing heat in the back of her throat was clear for everyone to see. A fire smouldered there before it jet outward. A stream of fire roared and spayed the balconies in burning napalm.

 

The witches scattered. The Crone vanished behind the flames before my eyes. Yet even I could still feel her presence. All around the room the witches scampered to their feet. They ran, flipped over their own tables for cover, jumped and flew in every direction as Chris continued to turn around and ravage the entire cavern for as far as her jet of flame could reach. As her flame burned, black smoke filled the enclosed space. The only ventilation for this place was the skylight where the red moon glowed, and that wasn't enough.

 

     “Alright!” Rose's cheer rose above the chaos.

 

With her sword drawn, she charged forward. I watched her leap, but the smoke blocked my view before I could see her actually crash into the fray.

 

The circus had been cancelled and so too was the dinner theater. I choked on the black fumes from Chris's fire and everything it burned. Ba'el choked below me. Maybe because I was still laying on top of her.

 

     “Get off me, you idiot!” She protested.

 

The demon didn't need to shout nor have me do anything. It was warning, not a request. With just a roll of her shoulder, she shoved me off with ease before I was of the right mind to try standing back up. But with the smoke still lingering, I had to kept crouched and low.

 

     “Alright, I'll admit it. These friends of yours actually do have the right idea,” Ba'el said when she calmed down. “You get them up to speed. I'll take care of The Crone.”

 

     “Alone?” I asked, then coughed violently. “You know she still needs you for the ritual. Why give her that chance to-?”

 

     “The Crone is my business, Laven,” she said sternly and without mischievous pretense which was ever present in her usual tone. “Whatever that ritual does to those children and this place is your business.”

 

What she was saying now seemed to be contradictory to what she blamed herself for earlier.

 

     “Then what was all that about-”

 

     “I'm putting my house in order, you get yours in order!”

 

I was about to press her more, but all it took was a simple palm strike against my chest to send me flying backwards. My screams as I flew were drowned out by the growing sound of a melee and the crunch of my bones as I dropped back down to the ground. I finally rolled to a stop far from the action but not out of range of it. The hit wasn't meant to break me, nor did it, but it was still impossibility strong, and it hurt. A lot. At least it wasn't a wall that stopped me this time.

 

There wasn't any time to roll around on the cavern floor. Steel against stone, wood and clothes clamored, and the ring, wiz and gleam of magic flew above my head and all around me. A few ricochets of magic missiles, balls of hail and orbs of flame smashed and broke upon the ground near me. It was more than enough to get me scrambling up off the floor and diving for cover behind some boulders. I wasn't sure if someone was aiming for me or if I was in collateral damage hell. No one seemed to know who or what they were shooting at anymore, so I kept my head down.

 

I heard something shuffle beside me. Someone else plopped right down next to me. I turned around to see a familiar head of long silky black hair. Susi- Shoshanah had taken cover beside me. Likely she saw me go airborne and hurried her way to me. Now the two of us had our backs to this boulder, slowing being chipped away by magic with our butts planted on the floor, and our legs sprawled out, both beaten and exhausted.

 

I couldn't see her eyes through her bangs. Her eyes were staring downward at the floor, toward where her tail rested between her legs. A paw reached out and weakly grabbed hold of my sleeve.

 

     “I regret sortieing you alone for this endeavor,” she said at last.

 

I didn't quite recognize the apologetic tone in her voice. This might be her tired voice. I got the impression she wasn't showing her eyes because they may just be as hollow as her voice was. It still showed; she couldn't hide the bags under her eyes. Had she been worried sick this whole time? Did she have regrets for doing what seemed outlandish but possibly among a limited number of options we had to get this far?

 

It was probably being alone with the other three was just something that stretched her patience and sanity to their limits.

 

I lightly shook her paw off then reached out with my hand and placed it on top of her head. With a gentle caress I petted her. My hand ruffled the hair between her two tall jackal ears that twitched as my hand moved.

 

     “Apology accepted,” I replied.

 

Shoshanah's tail wagged back and forth between her legs. A long sigh escaped her lips, and a metric ton of stress rolled off those shoulders. Did I even spy a little smile in the corner of her-?

 

Her paw reached back up, grabbed hold of my hand still petting her head and pulled it away. The anubis's piercing red eyes finally turned to look at me with a professional seriousness to them that I had long since become accustomed to.

 

     “We haven't much time at our disposal, Laven,” she said clinically.

 

The girl was right; I could not argue with that. While we took refuge, a battle raged behind us. We stared at one another for a moment longer, allowing the last few feeling of reuniting blow over so we could get to work. There would be much work to be done before either of us could celebrate anything. A lot could still be lost this night if we kept cowering. With a nod the two of us turned around and peered over the boulder.

 

At the far side of the cavern, I spotted Ba'el after much searching through the remaining pillars of black smoke. She was walking slowly, methodically, toward the biggest hat of them all, The Crone. The ancient witch stood alone, waiting for the demon to approach. I could make out their jaws flapping, but I could not hope to hear nor read into what they were saying. I could only imagine they were still exchanging the same words in different order. There would be no reconciliation between them. The melody changes but not the tone.

 

The Crone produced her staff from thin air through a game of magic sleight of hand. A plain shaft of wood with a gnarled wooden knot at the end.

 

     “Ha!” Susan laughed. “I kept telling that ignominious that she was not of green skin, hooked nose and warts for days.”

 

My eyes traveled back over to the anubis who had a slight grin on her face and a chest puffed out with pride. I recalled an argument between her and Chris some time ago, but I hardly think this was the time to bring that up. She quickly noticed me staring at her, chastising her with my eyes. A light blush formed on her tanned cheeks, then she coughed nonchalantly.

 

Ba'el approached, and I watched a purplish-black gate open in the air above her. It was some kind of portal. A huge metal object slowly descended from it till it cleared the dark gate then suddenly fell through and crashed into the ground beside her. It appeared to be some sort of scythe, but it was bigger than she was. The straight shaft was taller than her, and the curved blade was also just as long.

 

Compared to The Crone's unbecoming and simple staff, Ba'el's weapon was far more sinister and foreboding. It was a tool that had long since departed the idea of harvesting crops. The staff was gaudy, ornamental yet practical, solid. The blade itself was far more fantastical. It looked like something from another world entirely. Not so far-fetched after considering it appeared from somewhere else. It had serrated curves eating into the blade and whole pieces of metal missing along its edge, yet it held together and even survived slamming into the ground without so much as warping. It was heavy but sharp looking. Where it connected to the staff, a corner of the blade had been replaced by a glowing and spinning green orb, just like the ones she used as the catalyst for her spells.

 

She hefted the weapon with ease and slung it over her shoulder. I did not know what it was made out of, but that thing must weigh over two dozen kilos at least. It was far too much for any practical weapon; swinging it around should be a nightmare of a chore. That didn't matter to the strength that little girl commanded. The Crone was not deterred. I did not know the kind of strength she had in her childish arms, but there must be more than enough magic in that little frame of hers to square off against the baphomet.

 

     “Laven,” Shoshanah spoke and reigned in my attention. “What manner of demon is that?”

 

     “You remember that little lecture of yours about witches and demons? Well, that's The Crone's old demon master.”

 

I looked back over and saw those red eyes of hers opened wide.

 

     I pressed on quickly to alleviate those fears of hers, “A rebelling demon. She's here to take out The Crone. We just need to let her.”

 

Shoshanah's eyes narrowed, now glaring at me, telling me me that she was not convinced - nor amused.

 

     “That weird little plan of ours worked but only because she brought me along for the ride herself when they snatched all those kids. That demon was disguised as one of them, hid herself in my shadow and only revealed herself to save my life and have us both escape... She even left a trail for you to find this place... Look, I'll explain myself afterword. Just let them fight it out.”

 

     “'Myself'?.. Explain yourself, Laven.”

 

I choked a little and blushed. That was a bad choice of words. Especially around Susan who picked up on it in an instant.

 

     “Just forget about those two for now. We need to stop that rit-”

 

A whoosh of air from behind stopped me in my tracks.

 

     I heard a child's voice from behind, “There he is, the grade-A hostage!”

 

Behind me were two witches, floating in the air. As they spoke, they touched down, dismounted their flying staffs and pointed their wands toward us. Their wide hats were larger than average, another pair of the other Crone's own lieutenants. They were far more organized and prepared than all the other witches. Even through all the chaos they singled me out and saw me as the weakest link out of all their intruders. It happened all at once.

 

Glowing light formed at the tips, I threw up my arms to cover my face while Shoshanah's own arms moved, trying to form a shield of transparent golden light between us and them. She wouldn't be fast enough. There was a flash of light, but it was more a fizzle. A short circuit that let off a pop, crackle and puff of smoke from the end of their magic wands. The energy of their spells blew backward into their faces, and the two little witches yelped in surprise. Two pieces of wood clattered to the ground below, cut clean off the rest of the shaft. With barely a sound, two dainty feet planted themselves between the four of us.

 

It was Minte; there was no mistaking it. I saw the light prismatic glint of her wings as they buzzed and folded back into her mantid abdomen long before I noticed more than the shadow of the girl herself. She had dropped down from nowhere. Her arm blades were drawn, but with a snikt they snapped back into place against her arms. With a graceful pirouette she spun back around to face the witches, the tattered hems of her bodysuit which ended more like a dress danced dangerously close with her panty-line.

 

The two witches recoiled but recovered quickly enough. Minte watched them, her antenna wildly active above her head as they felt the air for danger. Yet she didn't seem too concerned or pressed for time when the two witch lieutenants readied themselves to attack again. The moment they moved I understood why. What were once seamless and invisible gashes in their big hats and black witches robes split and their clothes down to their underwear exploded into tatters. They looked down, gasped and screamed in surprise. Long enough for one of the assassin's deadly legs to connect with the left witch's shoulder in a brutal full roundhouse. A flash of light sparked off her magic barrier at the point of impact, and she was sent crashing violently into her partner while Minte's leg followed through. Both their bodies clonked against one another and were sent flying. They sprawled on the ground in the distance, twitching, as they dog-piled on each other.

 

Minte's roundhouse continued; she had to follow through one more revolution because of her devastating kick's momentum. She spun around—her dress's hem once again flirting with the wind—and finally stopped when she was once again faced me.

 

I could not hide the relieved smile on my face.

 

    All the tension left my body with a sigh, “Minte-”

 

     “-Thank you for assistance,” Shoshanah said, also sighing in relief.

 

Minte silently gave us a single thumbs up with a blank expression on her face.

 

I quickly ducked back behind the boulder, Shoshanah followed and Minte squat down to mimic us both. We didn't need to attract any more attention.

 

     “Minte, you're here, good. I need to make sure everyone knows what's going on. For now, leave The Crone alone. Let the girl with the horns and her duke it out. We got bigger fish to fry.”

 

     “Then be quick about it, Laven,” Shoshanah said urgently. “We are still at a loss to The Crone plot.”

 

Out of concern, I peeked my head one more time around the boulder and saw just as Ba'el and the Crone rushed forward and crashed into one another. If I hadn't seen it happen, I may have assumed I heard the entire cave coming down. It was more like a thunderclap than two little girls tackling one another. The Crone's enchanted staff blocked the downward swing of Ba'el's scythe which pushed aside the air as it dropped faster than it had any right to given its size. I ducked back behind the boulder, and the thunder resounded every ten seconds or so. Their battle had finally begun, so I'd have to keep to my word and begin my own.

 

     “Conquest,” I said, carefully looking into Minte then Shoshanah's eyes when I said it.

 

I didn't want my words to be misinterpreted as hyperbole.

 

     “The Crone is fueling a ritual with the Red Moon, just like we thought, but it isn't to summon any demon. She doesn't even need it to do that. What she is doing with it is much worse.” I pointed down toward the ground as I spoke now. “Far below these caverns is a giant reservoir of water. Before that is a bunch of machinery and magic doodads I couldn't make heads or tails of.”

 

     “The March's irrigation systems,” Shoshanah muttered.

 

     “Exactly,” I said, not totally surprised she would pick on it so fast. “The Crone is looking to poison it. Not just any poison though. She's going to turn it into a big 'fountain of youth'. Any woman who drinks it will become like all of them: a witch. It will have so much magic in it that it will blow their life force and 'souls' right out of them, replacing it with the same stuff that fills the body of every witch you see here now. All the men will go mad with lust afterword and the entirety of The Marches will be one big demon realm.”

 

     Susan voiced her disbelief at first, “Such a spell would require a preposterous amount of magic power and mana to-”

 

But she stopped when something dawned on her.

 

     “Magical... doodads?” She asked, repeating my choice of words awkwardly.

 

Maybe the idea forming in her head had just dawned on me too, “You don't think that-?”

 

     “Row upon row of devices once used to power a system irrigate the waters of life throughout The Marches, correct? 'Tis just one location, however, if the others have since long been forgotten, degraded or rendered inoperable-”

 

     “-Then she's going to use whatever power there is to fuel her ritual.”

 

     “Yet it requires a sufficient and substantial addition of mana all at once to-”

 

We both looked at one another and came to the conclusion at once. Minte continued staring at both of us with a blank confused look on her face as her eyes flicked back and forth between us.

 

     “The children!”

 

     Shoshanah continued, her voice speeding up and becoming more and more concerned, “Yet unless the machines are prepared adequately with a sustained introduction of fresh mana, they would-”

 

     I interrupted her before she finished her thought with dreadful news, “There are already ten of the kidnapped missing,”

 

     “...Then it is ready and merely waits for the stroke of midnight. When the red moon will be at its highest and brightest point.”

 

I watched as she turned back, looked up toward the skylight and started holding out her paws, folding her digits while her lips moved and muttered silently. Shoshanah was doing some sort of complicated calculus in her head with all the numbers and approximate numbers involved in The Crone's ritual. After about ten seconds, she stopped and looked back over at me.

 

     “You claim that her target is The Marches in its entirety. She does not appear to have the power necessary to accomplish such a feat.”

 

     “She's only missing one last piece of that puzzle,” I said.

 

My finger pointed slowly toward Ba'el and The Crone who were circling around one another before readying to lunge at one another again.

 

     “The demon?”

 

     “That's right.”

 

     “Why run the risk of capture by engaging- Laven?”

 

She turned toward me and threw me a hostile glare. It was obvious she was more than a little ticked off.

 

     “What?” I shot back. “She said she was going to follow through with settling an old score of hers. I couldn't convince her, and I certainly couldn't stop her.”

 

While I defended myself Ba'el and the Crone clashed once again. The demon's first strike missed; the agile witch merely floated over the floor and flew to dodge the powerful attack which shattered earth on impact. While the edge of her scythe had devastated the stone floor, the ancient witch let loose a barrage of magic projectiles from several rotating pentagrams behind her. The demon weathered the blows by just shielding her head and torso the best she could with one arm. Afterwards, she pointed and fired a ray of blistering magic which forced The Crone to pull back and retreat. The ray did not stop until he exploded against wall behind The Crone, which cracked and shattered as a layer fell to the ground. While Ba'el pursued her and slammed her fist into the wall which The Crone also just managed to dodge.

 

I looked back at the anubis incredulously. A moment of awkwardness lingered in the air between us even as the din of battle raged all around us.

 

     “...Fair enough,” She said, eventually.

 

We both slowly slid back into cover. Now we needed some sort of plan.

 

     “We're going to have to go all out,” I said. “I think we got an advantage for now. These witches don't look well trained for war no matter how powerful they may be. They are scattering for now, but they'll rally and organize eventually. I don't think we can take on their sheer numbers. Before that happens, we'll need to stop that ritual and get those children out of here.”

 

     “Fight seriously against children?” Shoshanah asked accusingly.

 

     “They might look like children; but believe me, most of the witches here are adults deep down. Even if they don't look or act like it. If we take them lightly we'll-”

 

A chorus of shrieks pierced the air. I poked my head back discretely out of cover and so did Susan with her head hovering just above mine. We both spotted Chris at the same time, who was still busy raging.

 

     “Come to me villains! Come and let my body be the tool of justice against your crimes. But do not expect mercy, for mercy is the end of justice and you will find no end of me this night!”

 

As she raged, she kicked, stomped and tossed witches around like rag dolls. They tried to blast her point blank with spells, dog pile her and constrain her with ropes and chains made of magical energy, but they continued to fail. She booted them into the air, broke their staffs and wands with a slice of her talons, clotheslined others with her wings and picked other off with whip-like lashes of her long dragon tail. She spat orbs of fire into the air which exploded into fiery flak, knocking those flying above off course or out of the air. It was no different from watching an old monster movie, the only thing missing was the paper mache city to knock over.

 

I pulled back behind the rock and so did Susan. We looked at one another with the same mildly horrified expression on our faces.

 

     “O-okay...” I struggled to say. “But you saw those protective barriers, right? The same sort of thing is keeping those kids we need to get out of here imprisoned. They even blocked Minte's kick and stopped them from being seriously harmed. Even if you still think they look like kids, if you pull your punches they-”

 

While I continued to speak, I poked my head out on the other side of the boulder, as did Susan. There I saw Rose, standing among the dispatched bodies of several witches surrounding her on the ground. In her arms she was holding up a single witch high up in the air by the back of her robe.

 

     “Hey!” She shouted toward Chris. “Their little shiny doohickeys don't protect against themselves.”

 

While she held onto one elbow of the witch in her grasp, she shoved the rest of the arm and hand into the witch's own face. There was no reaction from the shield as the poor girl was forced to hit herself in the face over and over again. Her face has long since turned black and blue with an ugly swollen right eye and bleeding nose. Somehow she had yet to pass out, so the tears in her eyes from the pain were still fresh.

 

I pulled back behind the rock again. I met Shoshanah's own expression with an equally morbid expression.

 

     “I'm just going to stop talking now.”

 

     “I believe that would be for the best, Laven.”

 

After witnessing all that callous brutality, I felt like we had become the villains at some point. Yet that didn't make the fact that the ritual was still set to begin at any moment.

 

     “Shoshanah. If we can get you to the ritual, can you stop it?”

 

I watched her eyes dart around inside her head. They moved as though she were reading an invisible book in front of her. Every so often she glanced over at the sigils in the distance and mumbled quietly to herself while cooking up some sort of theory, some sort of plan inside her head.

 

     “...Foci far below and amplifier high above... Properties of still pure waster... Living reagents and mana infused chalk, superficial. Engravings, carved in the stone... Unique design, singular application, complicated... Redundant for fail safes... Yet delicate...”

 

Her eyes widened for a moment then slowly calmed themselves back down. A few nods and last murmurs to herself as though she needed to convince herself about what she had just thought. She looked at me directly and in a very matter of fact manner made a solemn swear.

 

     “If that is what you wish, then it will be done.”

 

There was a seriousness in her face and confidence in her conviction that made me feel a hell of a lot better. With a lighter heart, I turned toward Minte who was still watching the two of us silently.

 

     “Minte, I need you to cover Shoshanah. Keep all these witches off of her for as long as possible. Watch everyone's back. Can you do that?”

 

Minte didn't even hesitate, she simply nodded once.

 

     “Then the two of you get on that.”

 

All three of us stood up, something that neither of them expected.

 

     “Laven, what are you doing?” Susan asked me in a concerned voice.

 

     “I'm going to get Rose and Chris on the same page while you both deal with the ritual.”

 

     “It is far too dangerous out there!” She protested.

 

     “It's dangerous everywhere. Right now I'm more worried about those kids. We need to break them out of there, then get all of us the hell out of here. You two just worry about taking that spell down; you leave Rose and Chris to me.”

 

     “But-!”

 

Minte placed her hand on the anubis's shoulder. She looked over at the mantis, who stared at her, telling the priestess to let it be. Shoshanah bit her lip then swallowed her next words. She turned around, didn't once look back and broke out of cover. She sprinted left across to the opposite side of the cavern, toward the glowing patterns on the floor. She was harried by random far-flung spells and dodged them all the way, but she had more than enough of her own power to bat them aside with her own magical, gold defensive shield. Minte gave me one last look before she followed her, taking great leaps and quickly vanishing into the shadows.

 

It wasn't safe for me to just stand around, so I ran right toward the source of the flames burning up the entire cavern. I dodged all the spells, infernos and potholes while keeping as low a profile as I could. Still battling in the distance was Ba'el and The Crone whose battle tore up the very ground they fought upon. There was no way to get close that would be good for my health, so I steered clear and made a beeline right for Rose. I was worried she might soon get the idea to stick her neck into those two Sabbath titans' business.

 

     “Rose!” I shouted as I approached.

 

When I had finally gotten close enough that my voice could be heard over all the chaos, she had just finishing beating a witch over the head with the pommel of her sword. With the girl knocked out cold on the floor among several others, she turned to the sound of my voice and greeted me with a wide smile.

 

     “Laven- whoa!”

 

I didn't stop running. Stopping would be a bad idea, so I kept going. As I passed her by, I grabbed hold of her left wrist and dragged her along with me. I pulled the salamander along and dove behind a nearby pillar, away from all the carnage going on. Rose offered little resistance; she allowed me to pull her along. She must think it was all part of some game.

 

     “Laven! This is the best fun I've had in ages. These kids pack a lot of punch for their size even if they don't fight so good. And they just keep coming.” She flashed me an even brighter smile as she pointed to the chaos with glee. “Come on, the two of us could-”

 

I pulled her closer, then up against the pillar. With my hands on each side of her head I leaned in. I needed Rose to be still and listen for a moment. She was still burning bright; her tail was alive with energy.

 

     “Rose. I need you to listen and listen closely.”

 

Rose went quiet. Her expression was a little confused now. She had been caught off guard, and it showed. The smile wiped from her face while she looked up me with an uncharacteristically meek expression and nodded. I couldn't stop to be any more polite than I already was... I especially needed to ignore the hint of red on her cheeks.

 

     “Rose we-”

 

A loud explosion and pulverization of rock quickly shut me up. The wall just fifteen meters away crumbled. Clouds of rock and dust billowed out from the impact crater and washed over Rose and me. After I pulled my arm away from my face which I used to shield debris from getting into my eyes, I saw The Crone with her back against the wall. Ba'el was on top, trying to crush the witch under her scythe's shaft. The demon's opponent fought back against her raw physical strength with glowing feet bathed in red energy and her own staff crossed with Ba'el's. The little witch's boots roared with the force of a jet engine, so they didn't even fully touch the ground. She desperately tried pushing back against Ba'el by flying in the opposite direction as strongly as she was able to.

 

The deadlock was broken when another series of red glowing pentagrams floated out from behind The Crone's back and fired at Ba'el from point blank. The demon had to lean back to dodge them, but that also meant she lost her leverage on The Crone. She knew this was coming though, so as she leaned back, she fell onto her own back. The witch shot forward but was sent flying instead of reversing the pin when Ba'el's hoof connected with her stomach and flung her opponent toward the other end of the cavern. The baphomet completed her roll, stood back upright, then chased after her.

 

Had that been a little more to the left, the two of us may have been pulverized instead. That didn't seem to concern Rose in the least. Her meek expression had vanished in an instant. She had witnessed the intensity of the fight and got excited. Without thinking, she tried to follow the both of them, but I kept my arm steady to block her way and pushed her back up against the pillar. Rose puffed out her cheeks and pouted when I reigned her in.

 

     I continued where I left off, “Rose, concentrate. We're here to rescue these kids. We can't spend all night fighting these witches. There are too many of them. This is a raid, not a battle. Got that? They may be scattered now, but we can't hope to deal with them when they rally later.”

 

     Rose's eyes dropped low, “I know that. That's why I was trying to get all the fun I could now.”

 

Alright. We're not at square one then. That's a plus. She was at least taking this all semi-seriously.

 

     “If we don't stop them here-”

 

I peered toward the opposite end of the cavern where Minte and Susan had run. In the distance, I could see the priestess had reached the collection of pentagrams, circles and runes making up the complicated circuitry of The Crone's masterwork spell. Protected by barriers so great they were clearly visible, several witches sat crossed legged among the circles in trances. Their incantations held the magic together as the evening carried on till when the red moon would be at its fullest and reddest.

 

     “-Then they are going to turn The Marches into a war zone. The Crone will bleed those kids dry, turn them into her minions against their will, then use them as soldiers to conquer everything in this little corner of The Empire.”

 

Shoshanah held out a paw and countless particles of gold light materialized from thin air around her. They all fell together into the shape of a staff, and once they had all gathered, her golden scale staff solidified into existence. Armed with her trusty staff, she lifted it up high into the air with both paws, bottom pointed down, and slammed it into the ground. A loud metallic ring echoed off the walls, and an aura of brilliant light radiated off of her. I could see the shadows and reflections on the walls from her own magic circles which formed under her. Intricate hieroglyphics and other runes which were undecipherable to me.

 

It did not go unnoticed by The Crone's goons. Those which were not licking their wounds or fleeing recognized the threat and moved to interrupt her. They only rushed headlong into Minte who would appear, quick as lightning, from the shadows. Her strikes were quick, brutal and precise. She cut their weapons apart and sent their tiny frames flying with single kicks. A few stray spells reached Susan, but her own golden barrier had them glancing off harmlessly. I feared what any direct hit would do though. Our time was indeed limited.

 

That did not dishearten the assassin though. When they turned their attention to her, I watched as her arm blades sliced their magical projectiles in half. All their energy could do nothing to those sharp blades. Two halves of a magic missile split in front of her, drifted off to the sides and curved away from the anubis chanting and casting behind her. Chris has since taken to the air and was circling about the cavern, still wreaking havoc. Our window was short, but it was solid for now. But I couldn't keep Rose still for long. While I had been watching, she too had glanced over at the sight of the battle. It nearly caused her to salivate, and the heat radiating off her tail was starting to grow too much for even me to handle

 

And I was mostly used to it by now.

 

     “If that spells goes off, The Church of the Almighty are going to descend upon this place. Their crusade will tear this land apart. I think the people living in this place have it rough as is, but they don't need those lives of theirs torn apart on top of that. They don't deserve-”

 

I looked back at Rose, who was now looking back at me with a glimmer in her eyes. I could swear there were sparkles dancing about her face as well... I think I had chosen the wrong words given my audience. Tales of war and strife was this girl's dream, not a nightmare.

 

     “Rose! Focus!”

 

I pinched Rose's left cheek between my thumb and index finger and pulled. She flailed and waved her arms in protest.

 

     “Ow ow ow ow ow! Owkay! Owkay!” She slurred in pain.

 

There were little tears in her eyes when I let go, but I wasn't sure if they were crocodile tears or not. She rubbed her raw cheek with one claw trying to nurse it better.

 

     “If this whole place gets blockaded, if the whole world weighs down on us, that means this adventure is at an end.”

 

Rose's face went pale. I didn't expect such a sudden breakneck turn in her attitude.

 

     “...You mean that?” She asked timidly.

 

     “Yes. Now we need to get back out there and save those kids. Leave The Crone to the demon too. Their fight is private. Got it? Concentrate on giving Susan room and keeping those kids safe. You follow me?”

 

     “Mmmmm,” Rose pouted. “Alright. For you, husband, I can do that. Just this once.”

 

The look on her face was apprehensive, but the color returned to her face and she smiled again. I didn't have any reason to doubt her words were true. Not after she called me- No. Leave that be for now.

 

Ringing above the din of the battle, a foreboding drumming of energy got much louder. The glint and ring of Shoshanah's magic was swallowed up by it. When I looked back toward the opposite side of the room, I saw her sigils, magic circles and hieroglyphics were being squeezed and pushed back one by one. The red pentagrams of The Crone's spell were now fighting back. They were eaten up one by one until the only one left was the one the priestess was standing upon. Even from so far away, I could see she was in pain trying to fight back, and she was forced down onto one knee. The protective barrier surrounding her also flickered as it suddenly weakened and dimmed every few seconds.

 

From the opening in the roof, the red light got even brighter. As the time for true full moon got closer, so too did the strength of their ritual. Maybe Shoshanah would not be able to stop it at all?

 

Rose and I exchanged a quick glance. We nodded at one another and then leaped out from behind the cover of the pillar. We'd have to hurry to the other side and help them out. But before we got half way, another crash and explosion of stone shook the cavern. I very nearly fell over when the quake hit, so Rose and I stumbled into a stop. We both looked over at where the explosion had come from and saw Ba'el laying on the ground. Floating above her was The Crone, holding a red chain of magical energy. It was tied around Ba'el's ankle like a lasso, so when she yanked back on it and spun around in the middle of the air, the demon was carried along with it.

 

Another mighty crash shook the room when The Crone let her grip loose, and the slack caused the demon's momentum to shoot out and fly until she hit a wall. Since Ba'el was stunned, the witch attached another chain around her other ankle, the end of which she held in her other hand. Then she tied both her wrists the same way, all the while swinging the demon around the room and into the ceiling, floor, pillars and wall. When all four of her limbs were restrained, and Ba'el had been embedded into a wall, The Crone hopped through the air on invisible steps toward her.

 

     “I have worked a long time on spells to bind beings like you up. Did you believe that I had earlier used up my only trick?”

 

Ba'el struggled against the chains but couldn't pull her arms and legs loose.

 

     “Now... Let us both continue where we left off not so long ago. Let us revisit a happier time and what should have happened very long ago.”

 

Ba'el continued to struggle but could go nowhere. The Crone slipped her leg between her captive's and pressed their bodies together. She held the demon's cheeks in her hands and held her head still, facing forward. All around the witch, a cage with walls made of pentagrams and rune covered circles formed. That ancient witch wasted no time and, despite the captive's struggles, violently pressed her lips against hers. A hum of energy which had not yet been matched rung in my ears. I had to cover them in fear that my ears might bleed at any moment. Rose meanwhile covered her eyes with her claws, but not entirely as she peeked through her fingers.

 

Everyone had stopped what they were doing to watch this unfold. Something was happening, and it concerned everyone.

 

Ba'el's eyes widened in surprise, but her eyelids seemed to grow heavier and dropped low. The bright green of her eyes dulled and became lifeless, hollow. The Crone squirmed in ecstasy as she tried to press herself up against the demon more and more. Even I could not stop from blushing. Yet I shouldn't because my heart turned ice cold and felt like it had stopped beating altogether. All the red sigils of The Crone had their luminosity intensify ten fold. The red darkened into a bloody hue then quickly faded away into nothing.

 

The Crone pulled back her lips and took a step back to admire her handiwork. Ba'el's head hung low, her body limp and only held up against the wall now by the witch's magic which constrained her.

 

     “Ba'el~” The old witch cooed. “Now we can accomplish together what we have always wanted. Crush these friends of yours and offer up your power to the blood moon... But first...”

 

She licked her wet lips seductively.

 

     “I've longed to feel your touch for far too long. Come to me, Ba'el~”

 

Ba'el's body twitched, and the magical chains holding her rattled. Her right arm slowly moved from her side. Her paw rose up into the air; it was limp, lifeless. It shook as it struggled to turn over so that her paw faced upward. It brushed past The Crone's thigh; a sensation that caused the witch to squirm even more and cackle in delight. Her pinky folded into her palm and so did her thumb. The paw's fingers flipped the short skirt of The Crone's robe a bit but kept going. The Crone's smile was frozen on her face but her cackle stopped. Ba'el slowly raised her paw in front of The Crone's face and folded back her index finger. That left only one solitary finger.

 

     “Wha-” The Crone gasped.

 

The demon raised her head. A glimmer of blue light radiated off her forehead. There was a pentagram of blue glowing brightly there. Her eyes were once again bright green and full of life. Ba'el's expression was still blank.

 

     “Sorry, Crone,” Ba'el said apologetically. “The only 'fingering' you're getting-”

 

Her middle finger folded back, and her hand was suddenly clenched into a fist.

 

     “-Is a gang bang.”

 

The Crone sensed danger and reeled backward, but she only caused her body to tense up. A white fanged filled smile spread across Ba'el's face as she pulled back her fist, the chains binding rattling as she moved. With blinding speed, her fist shot outward. The Crone didn't have the time to get away. The red magical chains wrapped around her wrist split apart and shattered uselessly when the demon pushed past their limit. Her fuzzy fist slammed right into The Crone's jaw. The usual glow of her protective shield did not spark. It was an unmitigated direct hit. For a moment, I thought it would knock her jaw clean off her skull. A ripple spread from one side of her face to the other as the shock wave of force hit her full on. Her head turned abruptly and violently to its extreme. The sound the impact made was like an oar slapping against the surface of still lake. It blew every other sound in the cavern clear out of the water.

 

And just like a skipping stone on the surface of that still lake, The Crone was sent flying and bouncing off the floor of the cavern. She hit with all the speed of a bullet and bounced along the floor three times until finally colliding with the opposite wall of the cavern some distance away. I thought that the whole wall would come crumbling down on top of her considering how hard she hit it.

 

Mid-flight, the chains binding Ba'el snapped. There wasn't nearly enough strength in them to prevent the witch from flying away nor drag the demon along with her. While she was still embedded int the wall, I heard Ba'el rudely hocked up a loogie from her throat, swill it in her mouth, then spit. All to wash the taste left from The Crone. She then pulled her arms and legs free, pushed her back and butt free from the wall and dropped back down onto the ground. Dusting herself off briefly, she brushed right past everything and everyone without so much as acknowledging their existence. I and everyone else watched her tattered and torn green cape billow behind her as she walked toward The Crone's crater.

 

As Ba'el approached, the witch struggled to get back on her feet. Her head had been shaken up so bad that she had completely lost her sense of balance. It took three tries, falling flat on the ground each time, to right herself. With every failure, Ba'el got closer and closer. Her scythe—which had long since flown off into the distance—melted into the floor, and another portal opened before her. When it dropped though to the ground again, she caught it, slung it over her shoulder and continued to slowly make her way across the room.

 

The witch must have heard the clopping of her hooves get closer and closer because she whipped her head up and glared furiously at the demon. She ground her teeth together in rage. There was a noticeable gap in her dentures now. A tooth seemed to have been knocked out by that brutal punch Ba'el dealt her.

 

     She approached the stumbling witch, “Now, Cronie, let me show you a real bad touch.”

 

With each step Ba'el took, the room grew progressively redder. I didn't notice it until it was far too late. There was one person who noticed though, that was The Crone. She began cackling like mad, so much so that it stopped even Ba'el in her tracks.

 

     “Hee hee hee hee! Too late. Far tooooooo~ late. Ba'el! Remember that moment in time when we just had one another. That one last blissful and innocent moment... BEFORE I KNEW YOU SULLIED YOURSELF!”

 

The witch made an ugly expression on what was otherwise an incredibly cute face. It contorted with rage and madness while she finally managed to stand tall by keeping her legs spread wide away.

 

     “So you'll deny me my kingdom? So be it. Loss is not unknown to me. I am a survivor. I will triumph. I've done it without you till now. I'll do it from now until forever. Even if I have to make what little I can mine then take what else I need!”

 

She threw her hands arms into the air; up toward the moon which was now as full as it would get. The entire cavern was bathed in blood red light, and the ritual of hers ceased its idle hum and came alive. The sigils and runes began to move and rotate. A mess of clockwork and mechanical lights etched into the floor. Inside the domed prison, the air became red, almost opaque, and the children there let out muffled screams. They began to sweat, cough and lose strength.

 

     I screamed involuntarily, “No!”

 

When I tried to run Rose grabbed hold of me. It very nearly tore my own arm off, but I quickly noticed that a wall of witches had already formed to block Rose and me from approaching. She had just stopped me from running right into them. Rose then quickly snapped me back and put herself between us and them.

 

     The Crone's mocking voice continued to rage, “With all the power of the blood moon and the lifeforce for leagues around, I'll have more than enough power to wipe you from existence, Ba'el! When your wretched soul returns to the hell from which you came, you can tell them while they torture and punish you for your crimes, the tale of how I, a mere mortal, cast you down!”

 

     “There!” Someone shouted.

 

A voice rang clear as day. Everyone turned to see who it was and ended up looking over at Shoshanah. She was drenched in sweat as she had been resisting the push back from the ritual. Her skin glistened in the red light, her hair and fur was matted, yet she stood up again. Regardless of the pain and stress she was enduring, she raised her staff up high and brought it down. The clang of solid gold on stone filled the cavern once again.

 

No circles or hieroglyphs of her own appeared this time. Instead, out of the thousand red lines in the floor, a few quickly turned from red to gold. They sped out from under Shoshanah, following the paths of least resistance. They snaked their way through the maze until four solid lines of gold glowed toward the cardinal directions. It did not appear to do anything at first, and the ritual continued to grow brighter, but something was wrong.

 

A spark jumped out from the red lines of magic. It was followed by a whole magic circle imploding then violently pushing back outwards, popping like a balloon. It sent sparks in every direction, a massive firecracker. A few lines of red here and there grew in luminosity quicker than the others, while some died down. One blowout followed the first, and they kept on coming. All the magical energy was trying to feed through the complex mechanics of the spell, but there were four golden wrenches thrown into the equation. It caused bottlenecks, dams and complete blockages. The witches—which had been sitting in trances—stirred awake. They looked about in panic when the energies flowing through them and around them went haywire. When they lost concentration, the magic circles underneath them exploded and fried them as well. A jolt of electricity knocked them clean out or showered them in sparks as hot as glowing coal.

 

At the lines connecting the prison and the ritual itself, the biggest and most dangerous short circuit of them all built up and looked ready to pop. Smoke began rising from the ground. On one side of the golden divide the lines got brighter, and on the other they dulled. It was an imbalance which could not last. But instead of the barrier between them breaking, the red lines in the dust exploded. Following that explosion was the sound of broken glass. The dome covering the children in their prison fractured then shattered like glass. Transparent panes of magical glass disintegrated into particles of red light before they even reached the ground.

 

The only other sound in the whole cavern was The Crone's babbling as she watched it all fall apart.

 

With the sound of an electric generator winding down, the ritual suddenly ebbed to nothing. The red glow from the floor died; the only red glow was from the now waning face of the red moon.

 

Shoshanah tried to stay standing, but when the ritual crumbled, she too fell to her knees. She panted heavily, utterly exhausted. The girls inside the prison slowly picked themselves off the floor and looked around. They reached out and noticed there was no longer any barrier holding them back. But no one dared make a move. No one dared to make a sound.

 

     “No,” The Crone said weakly. “No no no NO NO!” She continued to babble, getting louder and louder.

 

     “Huh. Who would have thunk it?” Ba'el said, visibly impressed. “You might think you're a big shot, Cronie, but a genuine old world Royal Priestess of the Dead? Just bad luck I guess. There are people other than me who have been around longer than you have and know their ways around a spell or two. Or did you forget that too? Oh well. Tough break...” Her voice then turned to mock encouragement, “Try again next millennia?”

 

Weird clicking and gurgling sounds escaped The Crone as if she were choking on her own tongue behind her clenched teeth. Two losses in a row was too much for the ancient witch. Decades of planning and preparations up in smoke.

 

     “Montée!” She roared.

 

Her eyes wide with rage boarding insanity locked onto her witches. They all nearly shat themselves in fear just looking at her. It was too much for some of them, yet The Crone didn't even seem to notice a couple witches here and there in the rear ranks turn and slink away. I was surprised it didn't cause a stampede of lemmings. It appeared that most of them were still more terrified by The Crone's wrath, and her hound, than any of us.

 

     “Kill them! Every last one of them! Montéeeeeeeeeeee!” She screamed again.

 

Of the witches who readied themselves, most did so reluctantly. This may be a time to talk with these witches. There was a very real miasma of terror that seemed to keep them here. It could be the cognitive dissonance between their lust for youth, power and pleasure that their master gave them in spades and their greenhorn fear of fighting. The girls and I prepared ourselves again. Someone was waiting for the other to make the first move. The tension hung in the air thick, other than The Crone's mad shrieking, no one else so much as peeped.

 

Rose, already in her aggressive stance and ready to attack, turned toward me and asked, “What's a Montey?”

 

I swallowed hard, my throat now completely dry, and whispered back, “Don't worry, the little girl and I already handled this once before. He's just-”

 

From below The Crone's VIP balcony, a giant crashed right through the cavern wall. The hulking brute of what was once a man smashed his way into the room. He encased completely in hundreds of black belts that magically augmented his strength. His blood had replaced by potions of strength. That thing had to be taller than four meters now. His muscles bulged, painfully, unnaturally, from his frame. When he roared, it wasn't a figment of my imagination that the cavern shook.

 

     “MOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOON!”

 

Bits of rock rained down from the roof.

 

     “-Even bigger than before!”

 

My jaw had dropped, and a profound feeling of terror seized me. His previous loss had only galvanized the already insane guardian of the witches to make himself even stronger than before. All that power and he only had to sacrifice some last shreds of his sanity along with now only being able to utter monosyllabic words. Rose did not share my dread. She had a look of surprise at first, but that slowly morphed into smile. The fire on her tail erupted and grew twice in size, and her eyes gleamed brightly, betraying her excitement.

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