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”This really has become a rather unpleasant place.” Neleh said half to herself while surveying her surroundings.

All around them was an expanse of what looked like volcanic ash. Every now and then she could see the scorched remains of enormous trees, now reduced to burnt black husks by the wave of heat that had turned the already tortured continent into a hellscape. There was nothing living here anymore, which was especially sad considering the lush magical forests teeming with life that used to cover these lands. Anything that might have survived the heatwave would’ve long since died either due to lack of sustenance, or because of the air that was barely breathable. The sky was covered by a cloud of ash, soot, dust and other small particles thrown into the air by the impact caused by the portal landing on this continent.

The same grime filled the air, forcing the two into wearing a protective veil over their face, enchanted to ease their breathing. A short exposure to the air would not have been problematic to either of them, the air wasn’t strictly poisonous after all, but the longer they spent here, the more pronounced the need for such measures became. All their scouts used similar precautions, and even the gryphons used by their flying scouts were using similar equipment to both help them breathe and to keep their ability to fly through the muck.

Neleh and Shiori had been walking through this wasteland for several days now. Neleh knew it had been about eight days, but even she had to resort to estimations as the sky was so heavily covered that they could not see the sun. They had passed several heavy fortifications constructed by the Blades and were now closing in on the place the portal had landed. Shiori was there as a guide, since she had seen their destination before, as well as Neleh’s guard, while Neleh was here to estimate the strength of the defenses they might face. If she judged it feasible, she would also be able to open several arches to Nexus and allow their forces to attack the portal.

The reason they had taken so long to get here was because they had sensed several detection spells reaching across the continent which would be able to notice Neleh’s approach if she used her normal method of travel by flight. That approach was fairly easy to detect due to the magic involved. The slower pace of their travel along the ground didn’t really worry her overtly much, however the presence of those detection spells did. The only reason other races on other worlds were able to deal with both Trow and Blades was their almost complete lack of magic beyond creating more of their own number and the armor used by the Trow. Serpentia was also not famed for her abilities in magic. That hinted to Neleh that there was something else involved. Serpentia was getting help from somewhere.

It seemed unlikely that Serpentia would deign to rely on the assistance of other lost-deities, so who was helping her then? That was the problem that was causing Neleh to worry. There were some possibilities but none of them seemed very likely. Dealing with unlikely scenarios always made Neleh worry, because it was harder to judge what the truth was, since all of the options were unlikely.

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Despite the heavily enchanted cloaks the two were wearing, designed to make them harder to detect, they were forced to be careful as they approached the crater created by the crash-landing of the portal. Just in case, the two crawled the final meters as they approached the lip of the crater, before peering inside. Luckily the dirty air also made it hard for anyone to notice them, even though it also limited their own vision.

Nevertheless, it wasn’t difficult to see the large dark fortress that had risen to protect the portal. It was hard to tell what the color of the stone used to build the structure had originally been, but now it was dirty black due to the ash and soot. They could also see soulforges surrounding the fortress. The forges had spread and grown since Shiori had seen them last, which was also the reason why they were not inside the fortress. The large buildings took too much space and sprawled further and further away from the fortress at the center.

The forges and the walls were manned by thousands upon thousands of Blades either working or standing tireless guard. It was clear that the only low ranked Blades here were those that had just been created by the forges and were now starting to move towards the warfront. The higher ranked Blades were clear either because of their hulking size, or the sleek danger that the Blades focused on speed radiated. Some of the most powerful ones had glowing red runes on their black metal frames. It was easy to recognize the Soulforgers from the regular Blades. They were smaller and more humanoid looking, and moved in a way that showed more intelligence than their lesser kind. Despite their size, it was also clear that they were the most dangerous.

There were also several Trow moving among the Blades, although their numbers were less than Neleh had expected to see here. What Neleh had not expected were several figures of almost all the races of this world walking freely among the enemy forces. It seemed that only elves and celestials were in a minority, although even the numbers of the other races were miniscule even compared to the Trow. It took Neleh several moments to realize what was going on.

“I see, this is where the remaining members of the Consortium fled to. I suppose some of them are also surviving cultists from the various races. The remaining Harbingers must have led them here because Serpentia is the lost-deity most likely to succeed.” She finally said, informing Shiori of her suspicions.

“That would explain the lack of Elves and Celestials. Most of the elves were killed before they managed to escape and there weren’t that many celestial cultists in the first place. Say what you will about the feathered freaks otherwise, but at least they are loyal to their cause.” Shiori replied with grudging approval.

“That explains the spells we noticed on the way.” Neleh said with some relief. This was something they could deal with, while the other possibilities would’ve been much worse. “Also explains the information Serpentia seems to have about me."

Finally Neleh turned her eyes towards the portal itself. It looked deceptively simple, even if it was large. Their vantage point luckily allowed them a relatively good view of it. The portal had a wide round base half sunken into the ground. Someone had clearly dug most of it out of the ground, but that work was not yet finished. The base had been carved with various magical patterns that were used to create the magic of the portal. Two large pillars, also with magical patters, rose from the base and flanked the portal itself, and the two pillars were connected with an arch at the top. The whole construct was almost a hundred meters tall, and the portal was active with both Blades and materials streaming through.

“Elune dammit!” Neleh cursed after studying the portal.

“What?” Shiori asked in confusion. Sure the portal looked different than any they had seen before, but why would it cause Neleh to curse?

Without explaining, Neleh started to look through the surroundings of the fortress, judging the viability of their plan of attack. They intended to open several temporary arches, which would allow their army to stream through and take the fortress by surprise. Or to be more precise, they planned on using magic to collapse the fortress on top of the enemies in a lighting attack, and use the elite units of the army to protect the large amount of mages needed. They also didn’t expect that all the enemies would just roll over and die in the first attack. Everything was supposed to happen before the enemy reinforcements got here.

The situation looked good for their plan, aside from the reason she was cursing. Too good. The lip of the crater would allow her to open the arches without being seen and to bring the required forces in without being detected. The number of enemies was also less than she had expected. Their vantage point would also allow for a perfect position to bombard their enemy while they struggled uphill to reach them. It all seemed too easy, as if it was designed to allow their current plan to work perfectly.

Every sense of danger in Neleh’s mind screamed of trap. But how? She let her senses search the surroundings and couldn’t find anything strange. She sent several searching spell into the ground, in case the enemy had hidden some surprised underground, but came up empty. ‘Think Neleh, how would you ambush an enemy in an obviously superior position like this?’ She wondered.

‘One way is to flip the terrain on us, but that would either require that the terrain was suitable. There are no natural faults here, no danger of rockslides and no hint of natural earthquakes. I can’t sense any traps either. The only way to collapse the terrain would be through magic, but it is almost impossible for them to do that considering the advantage we have in magic.

The other way would be if they managed to push us down from this position and into the crater against their walls, but that would require them to have superior forces at our back. I checked and saw no hint of that on the way. I can’t sense the presence of anything like the doorways and arches we use. It would be a stupid risk to try and open them after our arrival, since we would already have ours open and could cut their reinforcements by preventing theirs from opening. So how would they get those forces? It’s not like they can appear from thin air…’ Suddenly her eyes widened in a realization of a certain possibility.

She spread her senses again, trying to find a very particular type of spells that would not show up unless you specifically looked for them. “Son of a bitch!” She suddenly cursed as she found what she had been looking for.

“Ok, now you have to tell me what’s going on! You can’t keep cursing like this and not explain. It’s so out of character for you.” Shiori demanded a little sulky.

Instead of answering, Neleh magically contacted Khali and brought Shiori’s mind along to listen on the conversation.

“What is it?” Khali asked as the spell connected.

“We have two problems.” Neleh replied curtly. “Well, one really big problem and one I would call a problem-tunity.”

“Well don’t keep me in suspense.” Khali replied.

“Firstly the problem. I know now why this lost-deity chose to throw a gate at us instead of opening one with magic. Khali, the gate is made of darkstone.” Neleh said almost exited.

“Wait, they found enough darkstone to make a portal big enough for armies? Dammit! I’ve tried to find enough to make new gates for Inferno for centuries! I never found enough, so where did they find it?” Khali replied also half angry and half excited.

“Darkstone?” Shiori asked in confusion.

“Ah, darkstone is a material almost entirely immune to magic. It’s also nearly indestructible by ordinary means. I see, so they couldn’t just transfer the portal here, so they had to move the darkstone by other means. Any ideas?” Khali explained half in thought.

“I think the lost-deity used some of that divine power they had left to open a hole in space and chugged the gate through the hole. The darkstone might not be affected by magic, but it can fly through empty space just fine and as long as it doesn’t touch the edges of the hole they created…” Neleh theorized while tapping a finger on her cheek.

“But how did they turn darkstone into a portal? I mean I planned to use the damn thing as an actual physical gate.” Khali asked.

“That’s where the problem comes in. They have somehow managed to carve the spell formations into the darkstone, so all it needs is some power to keep the portal active. As long as we can’t destroy the darkstone, the enemy can just reopen the portal any time they want even if we close it. All they need is to channel some power into the magical formations.” Neleh explained why she had been cursing.

So far they had been able to force the lost-deities to appear because opening another portal would take so much power, but that was not the case here. And even if they managed to destroy the fortress, taking apart the darkstone would take so much time and effort that all the enemy forces would be able to attack them when returning from the other fortifications.

After a moment of silence Khali gave a kind of silly idea. “You know, we could just copy their idea. I mean we wouldn’t have to open any holes in space, but we could just chuck the portal back into space. We could aim it at the sun or something. It wouldn’t matter if they opened the portal again at that point. I’d imagine they wouldn’t like a warm surprise like the sun coming back through the gate, and even the vacuum of space would be fairly unpleasant.”

Neleh blanked a little at that idea. “That’s…stupid enough that it might even work. I think one of my spirits, Surtr, would be able to do that if I channel enough mana through him.” She mumbled mostly to herself. Stupid ideas like this were something she actually had trouble coming up with.

“Glad you like it. Now what’s the other thing?” Khali asked a little irked at being called stupid, but also proud that she had come up with the idea before Neleh.

Neleh shook her head a bit to clear her thoughts. “Right, so this whole thing really is a trap just as we suspected. The enemy really has a devious mind and almost managed to fool me. Unfortunately for them, she didn’t consider your former abilities as the previous leader of Inferno.”

“Ok. That still doesn’t explain what’s going on. Now start explaining or I’ll stop being polite and start snapping the necks of your elves.” Khali was starting to get a little impatient.

“So I was wondering how they could manage to drop forces on us out of thin air, when I remembered a certain group of spells that can do just that if used correctly. Hint, these spells are usually used on enemies and for control purposes.” Neleh grinned a little.

There was a silence for several seconds while Khali pieced things together. “They didn’t!?” She suddenly asked in shock.

“They did indeed. There are thousands of ‘Imprisonment’ spells surrounding this very location and I’m guessing that’s the same all around the crater. There might be almost a million Trow and high ranking Blades imprisoned all around the crater.” Neleh replied with a grin.

‘Imprisonment’ was a control type spell that trapped the victim inside the spell, ostensibly removing them from the place the spell was cast. It was not completely unlike the Nexus Neleh had created, only much simpler as the victim was almost in a pocket dimension within the spell, but only return where the spell had taken them from in the first place. Lower level spells of the same line like ‘Maze’ could remove an enemy for a short time ranging from a few seconds to few minutes depending on the individual, while a high ranking spell like ‘Imprisonment’ would hold the victim until they were released by the caster or a third party removed the spell.

“So they’re planning on canceling the spells when we appear and dropping thousands of enemies right in the middle of our units? That really is a devious plan. I would imagine the chaos and confusion would make even your troops crack. It’s too bad traps only work for as long as your target is unaware of the impending threat. Problem-tunity indeed.” Khali laughed.

“Also, using ‘Imprisonment’ on your own troops when the ex-ruler of Inferno is around sounds very silly. If I recall correctly, that type of magic is your specialty. Well specialty in the sense that you’re completely clueless in any other magic aside from some torture techniques.” Neleh had a small evil grin at this point.

“Oh I think we can arrange something fun for them even beyond just stopping the enemy from canceling the spells.” Khali replied with a grin of her own.
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