The mountain of the Citadel was another leftover from the long-ago Elder War, a testament to the cataclysmic powers that had been unleashed on the world. The continent’s northern coast consisted entirely of the towering Dwarnskold mountain range, shielding the lands to the south from the raging equatorial storms, but giving them no harbor or access to the sea of any kind between Puna Dara and Onkawa. Near the longitudinal center of the range stood a particularly huge peak, whole and imposing when viewed from the sea, but its leeward side hollowed out as if an egg-shaped chunk had been neatly scooped out of it. The damage had been done by one of the rampaging Elder Gods, leaving behind an artifact much like the half-sunken plateau at Last Rock, the several massive craters in the Deep Wild, and the shorn-off mountain of Tiraas. These and other things loomed here and there in the world, a reminder to mortals not to reach above themselves, for there were powers in the world well beyond their ken.
On most of these mighty relics, mortals had built something as a testament to their own greatness, and the Lee was no exception.
Far more than the University at Last Rock or even Tiraas itself, though, the Citadel on the Lee was a marvel to rival the grandeur of its setting. The fortress itself hovered near the center of the great, smooth gap in the mountain, supported by towering pillars of stone connecting it to both the floor of the basin and the overhanging ceiling high above. Branching out from the central structure, held in place by networks of massive chains and deceptively slender columns, were smaller “islands” bristling with greenery, as did the terraces of the Citadel itself. These hanging gardens, aside from being a wonder of the world, more than amply supported the population of the Citadel.
The basin far below the lofty structure formed a sheltered lake, now, filled with the runoff from the Citadel’s irrigation system. A network of tunnels and cisterns carved into the living rock of the remaining mountain funneled water from the storms that wracked its northern side, leaving the Citadel sheltered on the mild-weathered Lee while still amply provided for, despite the vast desert stretching out from the foot of the mountain itself.
That, indeed, was the continent’s most arid stretch of land, with not a living thing to be seen between the Citadel and the northern rim of the Golden Sea to the south. The windblown sands offered the possibility of no roads or tracks, and the ascent up the mountainside was steep and dangerous even before it reached the frighteningly slender staircase that ascended from the rim of the bowl, through an impossibly long stretch of open air to the suspended Citadel.
Residents of the Citadel on the Lee liked their privacy.
That wasn’t to say that they were disconnected from world events, as was evidenced by the conversation taking place on one of the structure’s upper terraces.
Three figures slowly paced the path ringing the garden there, bracketed between greenery on one side and a chest-high stone wall on the other, beyond which loomed a horrifying drop.
“With regard to the Empire, my scrying attempts have become effectively useless,” said the only woman in the group. She was human, and of very advanced age, her face deeply lined and with white hair hanging nearly to her knees, but she stood straight, moved smoothly and her eyes were sharp. “Modern countermeasures are simply too effective, and Imperial Intelligence has learned to use them quite…intelligently. Oracular divinations, of course, are much harder to shield against, but less reliable by nature, to say nothing of the difficulty of obtaining an actual oracle of any kind these days.” She sighed, a short sound of annoyance rather than resignation. “This all came to a head this week, when I received a very polite missive from Lord Quentin Vex, offering to cooperate with the Order’s information-gathering efforts.”
“That’d go against our neutrality,” rumbled one of her companions, a dwarf in light mail armor. “Not to mention it’s bad policy. The Empire itself being the thing most likely to be hiding information we seek, allowing them to direct our efforts…”
“You needn’t point any of that out to me, General,” the woman said, giving him an indulgent little smile before her expression sobered again. “Of most concern was the method. He had his letter translocated into my quarters, quite precisely onto my desk, despite the immense distances involved and my own wards. The letter was secondary; the message was that the Empire’s capabilities far outstrip ours, and to the extent that we watch them, it is because they choose to permit it.” She sighed again, pursing her lips. “My use as a tactical scryer appears to have reached its end. It is quite a thing, staring one’s obsolescence in the face.”
“Your magical skills have innumerable uses beyond intelligence gathering, Nandia,” said the third man firmly, “and you have inestimable value beyond magic.”
“Flatterer,” Nandia said with a smile, which he returned.
He towered over both of them and outshone them by far. Everything about the man’s aspect was gold, from his neatly-trimmed blonde hair to his tunic and trousers, and even the elaborate scalemail armor he wore over it. The material looked exactly like burnished gold, though such armor would have been far too heavy and far too soft to be in any way useful.
Most striking were his golden eyes: smooth, featureless orbs without pupils or irises, emitting a steady golden glow.
“We’ve been over this and over it,” the tall man in gold went on, frowning as he gazed abstractly out over the desert beyond their sheltered vertical crater. “For all these many years, in the Council’s meetings and in countless private talks like this one. The rise of the Tiraan Empire changes everything. One ascetic Order which eschews entanglement with terrestrial powers can be a beacon of the Light in a fractious world. So it has been for centuries. But sitting amidst the territory of a monolithic state… Perhaps Lord Vex’s message to Nandia revealed our salvation as much as our weakness.” He grimaced. “The Order cannot but stand against the Empire if it grows as corrupt as we fear it may. It may be our good fortune that we are too insignificant to be crushed.”
“Empires fall, Lord Ampophrenon,” said the dwarf, “without exception.”
“And should we just sit here in our mountain and wait for Tiraas to collapse?” the old woman asked sharply. “For however many centuries or millennia that takes? The Order is here to lend aid to the world where aid is needed, Oslin. You would go as mad as I, or any of us, passively watching it pass us by.”
“You have the measure of me as usual, Archmage,” the General said with a grin. His expression quickly sobered, though. “Can we afford to place our own wants above the greater good? The world has changed; the Order will need to adapt. We’ve always provided a sanctuary and safe haven here at the Citadel. Truly neutral ground is of service to the world in innumerable ways. Maybe…maybe it’s time to reduce our role to that. Even if it makes me and my rank completely superfluous.”
“If the question had a simple answer,” said Ampophrenon, “I rather think we’d have uncovered it before now. This need not be decided this day, by us. The Council continues to deliberate.”
“I’m not sure that’s correct, my Lord,” said Nandia with a thoughtful frown. “The Council would follow your edict if you cared to lay one down. If you are unsettled in your own mind on the subject… If we can help you to resolve an opinion, perhaps your leadership would give us exactly the sense of purpose we have lost over the years.”
“That, too, has its dangers,” he admonished gently. “The Order has always been led by a Council, with the Lords of the Citadel only directing operations where such direction is needed. This has been our strength, since long before I came along, and I hope to leave behind an Order pure to its own purpose rather than my will when I depart this world. In any case,” he went on more briskly, turning his back to the battlements to face them directly, “while the growth of Tiraas has inhibited our movement among human lands, the Empire is still not truly absolute, even on this continent. We have at least as much business in the dwarven kingdoms, and there are still the elves, the Punaji and the Tidestrider clans. Even the drow—”
A bell began tolling in the Citadel, followed in moments by others. All three of those on the terrace whirled, staring outward over the vista of desert.
“Light watch over us,” Nandia whispered.
A dragon was approaching the Citadel.
“Will you deal with him, m’Lord?” the General asked tersely. “Or shall I muster the regiment?”
“No,” Ampophrenon replied, staring fixedly at the serpentine blue figure as it banked and glided closer to the mountain. “This is not an attack. See how he tacks back and forth in that broad pattern? That is to show us he’s coming. A dragon could be from over the horizon to our walls before we could respond if he chose. In any case,” he added, frowning, “I know this one. I can’t imagine him attacking a fortified target under any circumstances. It seems he is simply…paying a visit.”
The Archmage and the General exchanged a look, then she cleared her throat and held out a hand, palm up. A glowing distortion appeared in the air above it. Oslin, nodding thanks to her, stepped over to speak directly into the light.
“Attention Citadel guards, this is General Skaalvyrd,” he said, his voice booming throughout the fortress. “The dragon is not hostile. Stand down high alert.” He glanced quickly up at Lord Ampophrenon, who was still closely watching the incoming blue. “Remain at defensive posts. Stand by mages and healers.”
Ampophrenon turned and nodded approvingly to him, then motioned them backward.
They began stepping back, retreating nearly the full width of the terrace and well into the garden proper, Nandia letting her magical effect vanish. The dragon banked once more, turning to fly directly toward the Citadel, close enough now that the beating of his enormous wings echoed off the walls of the half-hollowed mountain.
He dived toward the front of the Citadel and then swooped back upward, rising to hover for a looming instant directly in front of the upper terrace, wings fully outstretched. The sight was awe-inspiring; he was a massive, sinuously graceful creature, cobalt scales glittering in the sun like a sculpture of faceted sapphire. He began to plunge forward toward them, and Oslin reflexively jumped back. There was simply not room for a creature that size to land.
The dragon shrank as he fell, though, diminishing in seconds, so that it was a humanoid figure in lavish blue robes who landed nimbly on the battlements themselves, and executed a courtly bow to them before hopping down to the floor.
“Zanzayed,” said Ampophrenon, nodding gravely. “Hail, and be welcome. To what do we owe this…most unusual visit?”
“And hello to you, too, Puff!” Zanzayed the Blue said brightly, wearing a cheerful grin as he strode forward to join them.
“Here, now,” exclaimed the General. “That’s the Lord of the Citadel you’re speaking to. Show a little respect!”
“Don’t,” Nandia said quietly. “He likes to get a rise out of people. If you give him one, he’ll never quit.”
“Why, Archmage Nandia!” Zanzayed said smoothly. “You’re still alive? How lovely.”
Ampophrenon cleared his throat. “I’m certain you haven’t come all this way to socialize, cousin. It’s not like you to spend time in places such as this. We practice a simple way of life here.”
“Yes, as I can tell from your fabulous outfit,” said the blue. “You are correct, though, I’m here on business. With all respect to your little secret society, dragon business.”
“The Order of Light is hardly a secret,” Nandia said dryly.
“What can we do for you, then?” Ampophrenon asked.
Zanzayed looked pointedly at the human and the dwarf. “Dragon business, as I said. If we could speak privately…?”
“These are my closest friends,” said Ampophrenon calmly, “from whom I keep no secrets and upon whose counsel I rely. You may either speak in front of them or they can hear everything you have to say later, when I discuss the matter with them. I would prefer to limit the number of steps involved.”
Zanzayed pursed his lips in annoyance, then sighed. “Very well, if you insist. I’m afraid there’s a problem with Khadizroth.”
“Oh? Is he well?”
“That’s… Complex. Before we even get into where he is now, you’ll need to understand where he has been recently. You supposedly keep an eye on the world from your little clubhouse, yes? I trust you know what happened to the Cobalt Dawn tribe a couple of years back?”
“It was more than a couple,” Nandia said archly. “These piddly distinctions do matter to we mortals, Zanzayed. Yes, we are aware of these events.”
“’Twas a ruddy shame,” Oslin said solemnly, shaking his head. “I hate to see such loss of life among elves. So much eternity, wiped out so quickly… But it cannot be denied that the Dawn instigated that conflict. A state does have the right and the prerogative to defend its people.”
“Yes, well, what concerns us now is what happened immediately after that,” Zanzayed continued. “Khadizroth rounded up and hid the survivors, tending to the wounded and raising the young. There weren’t more than a couple dozen of them total, as I understand it.”
“That sounds quite commendable,” Ampophrenon noted.
“That’s because you’ve not heard the whole story,” Zanzayed replied, grimacing. “As I was told, Khadizroth’s plan to was to raise the females from childhood, ensuring they were loyal to him, and then use them to…breed.”
Ampophrenon frowned deeply. “Breed?”
“Breed dragons,” Zanzayed said grimly. “A whole…clutch? Drive? Flock? Do we even have a word for a family of dragons?”
“No,” said Ampophrenon flatly, “because the idea is absurd. This accusation is severe indeed, Zanzayed, most particularly because the deed you describe is dramatically out of character for Khadizroth.”
“Not if you consider his known motives and predilections,” Zanzayed countered. “It’s not as if he had a sudden attack of late-onset domesticity. The idea, Puff, was for him to have a force that could counter the Empire. You know how he feels about the Tiraan. Consider what he’d just seen them do to the Cobalt Dawn, coming not long on the heels of what happened to Elivathrined…”
“In both those events, the Empire was acting defensively,” Nandia noted.
“That’s beside the point,” Zanzayed said impatiently. “Think of what it means. This Empire has proved it can bring down a marauding dragon without taking significant losses, and crush a force of plains elves on the prairie, things we all thought were well beyond humanity’s grasp. Taken in the context of overall human progress and the Empire’s proven tendencies… Well. We all remember Athan’Khar. Khadizroth may be one of the nobler among us, but he is also a planner and a pragmatist. Is it really hard to believe he would cross a moral line if he truly thought it necessary?”
“What is the basis of this theory?” Ampophrenon asked, still frowning. “I trust you have evidence?”
“It was first brought to me by Arachne…”
Nandia snorted loudly, as she usually did when Tellwyrn was mentioned in her presence.
“That,” said Ampophrenon, “is a less than reliable source, considering the extreme nature of the accusation.”
“Hah!” Zanzayed grinned and folded his hands before him, making them vanish into his wide, embroidered sleeves. “I trust Arachne more than I trust you.”
“That just might be the single most asinine statement any sentient being has ever uttered,” said Nandia in a tone drier than the desert beyond.
“Arachne doesn’t deceive people,” Zanzayed replied, “because she’s too bullheaded, self-absorbed, and lazy to be bothered with what anyone thinks. Virtues have a way of crumbling if you apply just the right pressure to them; character flaws, however, are all but invincible. In any case, no, I didn’t just take her word for it, not being a complete idiot myself. Khadizroth’s plan allegedly collapsed when two of his would-be broodmares revolted and smuggled away their fellow refugees to hide them among several elven tribes. That left a verifiable trail; I’ve spent the last six weeks tracking them down and asking details. No easy task,” he added with a long-suffering sigh, “given how elves ward against scrying. I have my confirmation, however. I’ve spoken to several elves in four different tribal groups who confirm they were part of Khadizroth’s little…colony. And there were three other tribes who refused to speak with me, which itself is suggestive; elves don’t turn away a dragon without a very good reason. I only got through to talk with those who would see me when I assured them I was hunting for evidence on Khadizroth’s doings, not working with him.”
There was a pause while the three Citadel residents exchanged long looks.
“This is significant news indeed, then,” Ampophrenon said finally.
“It is a repulsive action on Khadizroth’s part, if it’s true,” Nandia agreed.
“And, dragon business or no, this is exactly the kind of thing the Order has a stake in,” added Oslin. “He could disrupt the whole balance of power on the continent if the Empire learned there was a dragon plotting to bring it down.”
“But you say the plot was stopped,” said Ampophrenon, turning back to Zanzayed. “Did you come here merely to carry tales of Khadizroth’s misdeeds?”
“If that were the end of it, I’d be glad enough to turn him over to you and wash my hands of the whole sordid business,” the blue dragon replied with a distasteful grimace. “It gets worse, however. The first point of interest is something Arachne did not know, which I learned from the elves: those two who turned on Khadizroth are eldei alai’shi.”
“Light above preserve us,” Nandia breathed in horror. “Two of them at once? How is it we’ve not heard of this?”
“That’s the scary part, isn’t it?” Zanzayed said lightly. “Hopefully they’re dead by now. If not, we’re dealing with the prospect of headhunters who have acquired new skills: working in teams, and laying low. Their inability to do such complex things in the past has been the only thing that’s brought them to an end.”
“You said the first point of interest,” said Ampophrenon. “Does it get worse yet?”
Zanzayed sighed. “Before I set off to investigate the elves, I managed to track down Khadizroth himself. Quite by coincidence, he was brought pretty close to where I happened to be at the time.”
“Brought?” Ampophrenon said sharply.
“Oh, yes.” Zanzayed’s tone was grim. “It seems he didn’t manage to keep his little endeavor fully under wraps. Someone sent a strike team after him, composed of several top adventurers, including a certain Mary the Crow. She managed to bind him into his lesser form; to the best of my knowledge, he’s still stuck that way.”
“A disturbing thought,” Ampophrenon said slowly. “However, under the circumstances I can’t find it in me to fly to his rescue. It sounds a fair enough penalty for his actions.”
Zanzayed held up a hand, jeweled rings glittering on his fingers. “I’ve not come to the bad part yet. In Khadizroth’s moment of weakness, he seems to have been recruited by the Universal Church. Archpope Justinian aims to use him as a weapon toward his own ends.”
There was a moment of stunned silence.
“Flamin’ Light in the sky,” Oslin said eventually.
“Well bloody put,” said Zanzayed with a grim smile. “Obviously, this is not acceptable. Justinian cannot be allowed to have a dragon on a leash, for just all kinds of reasons.”
“There are far too many holes in this,” said Ampophrenon. “You are certain about these details?”
“I’ve told you everything I’m sure about. As you say, there are obvious gaps in the narrative. We need more information before moving.”
“We?” Nandia demanded, raising her eyebrows.
Zanzayed sighed melodramatically. “Yes, I’m afraid even I am sufficiently disturbed by the implications of this to have put aside my own business to deal with it. If mortals get it into their heads that they can make dragons do their bidding… The mind boggles.”
“It is not the old days,” Ampophrenon warned. “It’s not as if we can swoop down on Tiraas and burn it do the ground for its temerity.”
“No, indeed,” Zanzayed nodded emphatically. “The world is changing; I’m afraid we have shamefully failed to keep up with it…most of us, anyway. This is going to call for a whole new way of doing things.”
“Whatever it is you intend,” said Ampophrenon, “there is the matter of Mary, if she is still involved. If, as you say, it was she who struck Khadizroth down, then the ancient respect owed her by our kind is in abeyance, at least with regard to him.”
“That’s what you’re concerned about?” Zanzayed demanded incredulously. “The Crow can take care of herself. And if not, she’s buttered her own bed this time, as you pointed out. We have far more serious concerns, Puff. I have a plan, or at least the broad strokes of one, if you’d care to hear it.”
“This should be good,” Nandia said wryly.
“Speak,” Ampophrenon commanded.
“Right. First of all, I’ll need your help to gather the aid of any of our brethren who may be willing to take part. For one thing, you know most of them better than I; you’ll know whom to approach, and in what way. Besides which,” he added with a disarming grin, “I’m afraid most of them wouldn’t take me very seriously. There’s a good reason I came to you first.”
“Yes,” Ampophrenon noted, raising an eyebrow, “remarkable the effect a few thousand years of determined frivolity can have on one’s reputation.”
“Yes, yes, laugh it up. Moving on to my second point… The fact is, we just don’t know how to handle this. As a race, we command such power that we lack the skill of being…subtle.”
“The Order is accustomed to acting carefully in the mortal world,” Oslin said proudly. “And we stand behind Lord Ampophrenon.”
“Ah, yes, the Order of Light,” said Zanzayed, moving his head in such a way it was obvious he was rolling his eyes, even despite their lack of visible pupils. “It’s been a hundred years since you were a significant factor in anyone’s calculations, and you know it. We need relevant and current skills and knowledge. We also need someone who can impart these skills to dragons. Luckily, there is a perfect prospect… One who I, rather than his Lordship here, should probably approach.”
Ampophrenon curled his lip disdainfully. “You surely do not propose to involve him.”
“I just did propose that,” Zanzayed said acidly, “and let’s call it what it is: you don’t have an actual objection to my plan, you just dislike him on a personal and philosophical level. Put that aside for a moment and think about what we’re dealing with, here. Razzavinax lives and works more closely with humans than any of us, anywhere. He knows their trends and current ways, and he is well accustomed to navigating among them without making unnecessary waves.”
“He is a sly conniver, you mean,” Ampophrenon said, glaring. “As is only to be expected, given the particular mortal company he keeps.”
“Puff,” Zanzayed said in exasperation, “a sly conniver is exactly what we need. Or do you have a better idea? Really, let’s hear it. You want to challenge the Archpope directly?”
The three stared at him in silence.
“Yeah, I didn’t think so,” he said smugly. “The two things we, even if we all combined, cannot face down are the Pantheon and now the Tiraan Empire. We’re in the ugly position of having to contend with both. This needs subtlety. It needs Razzavinax the Red.”
“You will never persuade me to trust him,” Ampophrenon said, folding his arms.
“And that’s another thing,” Zanzayed said relentlessly. “The very fact that you dislike him so much is why his voice will be essential in bringing the others to join us. There hasn’t been a silver or black dragon since Ilvassirnil and Semathlidon finally succeeded in ridding the world of each other. You two represent the farthest extremes of philosophy among the living dragons. If you both come together to do this, the others will have basically no choice but to join in and help.”
Ampophrenon shook his head slowly, then turned, facing his companions. “What say you on this, my friends?”
“He speaks reason,” Nandia said, somewhat grudgingly. “It is not a complete strategy, but it is a solid basis for one, and his arguments on all points have merit. If we are to take on this challenge—and I don’t see how we can morally let it pass—we may have to make certain…compromises in order to meet it. We should be careful, as we proceed, that those compromises are strategic and not ethical in nature.”
“I don’t like this,” Oslin murmured, “any part of it. But then… It’s not the sort of thing a sane person should like, is it? I agree with Nandia’s reasoning. My gut warns me to be mistrustful, however. Of a lot of things,” he added, giving Zanzayed a long look. The blue dragon grinned at him.
Ampophrenon drew in a deep breath and let it out as a sigh. “Very well. This merits further discussion, but I fear we cannot afford to tarry. At the least, the Council must be informed before we proceed further. Zanzayed, will be you stay here as our guest while we attend to these details?”
“If that’s what it takes” Zanzayed replied, glancing around somewhat disparagingly. The view from the Citadel on the Lee was absolutely magnificent, awe-inspiring in all directions. The architecture and trappings of the Citadel itself, however, were notably spartan. “Let’s not make it too long, however. Urgent matters, you know. What sort of wine do you serve around here? How friendly are the girls?”
“Well,” Nandia noted wryly, “it seems our fears of fading into obscurity, at least, are delayed.”
Ampophrenon the Gold sighed again. “And thus does the Light remind us to be careful what we wish for.”