The island was little more than a huge boulder, an outcropping of black volcanic rock that rose from the choppy surface of the Deep Southern Sea. Constantly pounded by some of the world’s harshest weather, it had been carved by winds and waves over eons till the isle was very nearly artistic, an abstract shape of both sweeping curves facing the prevailing northern winds, and its original sharp edges and rough surfaces to the south and east. A kind of prow of weathered stone rose against the fury of the north, sheltering a flat surface below it. There was no harbor, natural or otherwise, nothing around the base of the formation except jagged outcroppings of rock. No one who visited the Black Isle came by ship.
In the lee of the stone, the bleak natural valley had been further carved out to form an amphitheater. Shafts sunk deep into the ground produced heat, reddish light and a constant scent of sulfur—not a pleasant effect, but sufficient to counter the frigid climate. The skies were overcast as usual, the wind fierce where it whistled against the northern bulwark and merely obtrusive where it eddied around and into the sheltered arena. Occasional spurts of rain and sleet splattered down, the latter quickly melting; what didn’t steam away in the heat of the shafts drained into slots cunningly worked into the floor against the walls. It was a serviceable place to meet, but not a comfortable one. The isle’s denizens did not expect, want or deserve comfort, as a rule.
The roughly two dozen people assembled around the amphitheater’s seats were a mixed lot, the only common point among them being the spell effect laid upon the island which obscured their faces. Looking at one another, they found the eye would simply slip away from features, leaving no memory or possibility of recognition; voices, too, were only so much neutral sound, conveying information but making no impression on the listener. It was for good reason that their identities were hidden from one another. They were a mixed bag, mostly humans with more than a handful of gnomes and even two elves, a male drow and a blonde woman with the horizontal ears of the prairie folk. Their costumes were eclectic, but among them were six in the gray robes of the Black Wreath, two in black Universal Church chaplain’s coats, and three in blue Tiraan Army uniforms bearing the insignia of the Imperial Strike Corps.
“Everyone you see here will die,” they were informed by the figure standing in the center of the amphitheater’s stage. “Not merely in the sense that all living things die. Statistically? The only question for a warlock is whether they are brought to a swift end by something they have summoned or provoked…or lived to be slowly destroyed from within by their own growing powers. Perhaps you will be the exception, the rare practitioner who cultivates control, restraint and mastery to the point that they never call up more than they can handle. You would not be here if you lacked the ambition, surely.” He smiled coldly and begin to prowl back and forth around the rim of the stage. “There have been a few, over the centuries. Several I have personally known, others of whom I have heard. It is not, however, likely. I would venture to say it is barely possible. No…by the numbers, you can expect to die before your time. Likely in agony.” He came to a stop, folding his hands behind his back and staring up at them. “Your success on this path will hinge on your refusal to accept this fact.”
The figures on the dais were exempt from the face-blurring effect. Two women were positioned at either end: stage left, a statuesque figure in a Sifanese kimono, altered to provide egress for her wings and tail, stood serenely at attention, still as a statue except when the wind tugged at her hair. At the opposite end, another woman sat in a wooden chair beside a glowing brazier, swathed in so many layers of furs that nothing of her was visible except for her angular features, olive Tiraan complexion and black hair. Beside her crouched a sshitherosz demon, diminutive and twisted, refilling her cup from a steaming pitcher when she gestured. At the back, not far from the succubus, a dark-skinned man in a dapper white suit lounged in a chair of his own, observing the lecture with a broad smile.
The speaker was a tall man with long crimson hair bound back in a high tail; despite the cold and the wind, he wore only a thin layer of black silk, his pants snug and ending above the ankle, his shirt ruffled and open all down the front, whipping around him with each gust. He wore no shoes. His eyes were as red as his hair, and featureless as the blank expanse of rock above him.
“It is an absurd and narrow line to walk,” he continued, beginning to pace again. “The moment you accept the reality of your own death, you may be assured that it will immediately rush toward you. The moment you presume yourself above such concern, the same. Habit and complacency are your enemies; caution and self-knowledge your allies, denial and aggression your weapons. Yes, this is every bit as impossible a combination as it sounds. That, my children, characterizes the path of the warlock. For a mortal to undertake it with any degree of success, they must be quite mad, and in exactly the right way. While you are here, you will learn to cultivate that madness, and to keep its more dangerous cousins at bay.”
His smile widened fractionally. “The infernal is the gift of Scyllith, never forget, and her gifts are each their own cost. She is the goddess of cruelty. Power she grants us, yes, but with it comes suffering. There is no cheating, students. The best you can achieve is to move the suffering you have earned onto your enemies rather than bearing it yourselves.”
Above the constant whine of the wind came a deeper rush of air, followed by another. Several of those attending the lecture tore their gaze from the speaker to look around at the sky. Aside from the gray banks of clouds that flowed by overhead, a heavy mist obscured even the near distance, wisps of cloud and sea spray making fantastic shadows against the anonymous gloom.
Then the source of the wing beats emerged from the mist, and the assembly devolved into panic. Students leaped to their feet, several calling up spells of fire and shadow, as an enormous blue dragon dived out of the darkness and banked, circling around the arena.
“PEACE!” thundered the man on the stage. “Discard those spells immediately!”
It was a testament to his authority that everyone obeyed, though not all quickly, and most with evident apprehension. The dragon made another circling pass, arcing out to sea and approached the island again from the south. This time he came in lower, beating his wings, and settled to the stone just above the lip of the arena.
Nearly all the warlocks by this point had risen and turned, facing the colossal shape that now loomed above them, folding his wings and arching his neck to stare superciliously down his long nose.
“And if this had been a live exercise?” said the speaker calmly. “What would have befallen had you been in the middle of calling up a bank of raw power? Of negotiating with a sshitherosz, casting the protections on a ritual circle? What if you had been so thoroughly distracted in the middle of creating the simplest shadowbolt that you drew more power than you could safely contain? Perhaps nothing. Perhaps a creeping cancer whose effects you would not have felt for years. Or perhaps you would simply have detonated on the spot. Each of those things has happened to unwary learners in this very stadium.”
Again he had the attention of his listeners, though many had settled for positioning themselves sideways, reluctant to turn their backs on the looming dragon.
“Control,” he said fervently. “You must cultivate control. Absolute control, at all times, in all situations! The world is not a classroom, children. You never know when a dragon will swoop down upon you, or anything else. Your means of dealing with these events are through a power that actively seeks to destroy you. Not by anything can you afford to be surprised.”
The blue dragon huffed softly—relatively softly for his size, which produced a booming exhalation that made almost all of the assembled warlocks flinch violently. On the stage below, the speaker sighed heavily, dragging his hand over his face in a pantomime of despair.
“This lesson is ended,” he said. “You will return to your cells and spend time in meditation; I will be testing you further in the future, and those of you who do not learn to face surprises with equanimity will not leave this island alive. On that note, it has come to my attention that several of you have been attempting to learn the identities of your fellow students.” He actually grinned at them, an expression that was far from kind. “I expect a certain amount of natural curiosity from students, just as I expect the various organizations who sent some of you to grab any opportunity to scheme against each other. I can afford to tolerate this affront to my neutrality because, I assure you, I know precisely who has done what, and how. Any of you who succeed in learning something you should not know will be dead before you can do anything with that information. Keep that in mind. You are dismissed.”
There was no conversation among the students as they filed out of the arena through narrow doorways cut into the living rock, though there were many furtive glances up at the visiting dragon. On the stage, the speaker waited impassively for them to clear out. The woman in the furs was also studying the blue dragon, though with apparent calm; she tapped her goblet with a fingertip and the sshitherosz hastened to refill it with steaming hot cider. The succubus remained stiffly aloof; the man in white grinned widely, tilting his head forward so the brim of his hat concealed his eyes.
“Your timing is execrable as always, Zanzayed,” said the man in black when the last of his pupils had filed out.
“I thought you handled that very well,” the dragon rumbled. “Working it into the lesson, even! Very adroit. It is, by the way, nice to see you too, Razzavinax.”
“Mm.” The red dragon tilted his head infinitesimally to one side. “What do you want?”
“Things are afoot,” said Zanzayed. “It’s time we had a talk.” He unfurled his wings and beat them once, launching forward; his massive bulk lunged at the stage with terrifying speed.
The woman in the furs shrieked, dropping her goblet and pressing herself back into her chair, but Zanzayed shrank even as he plummeted down on them, and also slowed. He drifted the last few yards like a leaf, his blue robes fluttering gracefully around him, and came to rest only a few feet from her.
She flinched again at his approach, but he bowed deeply and spoke in a much gentler tone. “Dear lady, upon my blood and my life, you have nothing at all to fear from me, nor any of my kin.” He straightened, turning to give Razzavinax a faintly reproachful look. “You’ve not explained it to her?”
“It isn’t a subject I expected to come up,” the red said dryly. “We are not, as you know, sociable creatures as a rule, and I in particular am unaccustomed to civil visits from our brethren.” He strode over to her chair, coming to a stop with his hand reassuringly on the woman’s shoulder. “Zanzayed the Blue, this is my consort, Maiyenn. May, this is Zanza, a fool and a reprobate.”
“And proud of my achievements in these fields,” Zanzayed said, grinning. “Razzavinax is right to imply he is less than popular among our kind, but that does not reflect upon you, my dear. By ancient compact, a dragon’s mother is sacrosanct, and owed the highest of respect from all of us.”
“Really,” she said, her voice a warm alto and showing no signs of her earlier fear. “I can’t imagine there are very many living at any one time.”
“Indeed not,” Zanzayed replied smoothly, “and thus even more precious.”
“If it should come to pass that you need aid of any kind and I am unavailable, my love, you can call upon any dragon,” said Razzavinax. “This, of course, I do not foresee. But as I was just telling the lambs…life is unpredictable.”
“I would have expected the others to seize the opportunity to prune a red’s bloodline,” Maiyenn murmured, freeing one hand from her enveloping furs to rest it against her belly. It was not immediately apparent in her swaddled shape, but this motion made clear the outline of her body, very heavily pregnant.
“Unthinkable,” Zanzayed said firmly. “A dragon may defend himself if you attack him, but even so it would be with the greatest care not to harm you. The rest of our kin would turn on any who failed to aid a dragonmother in need. That one of us might actively do you ill… It is simply inconceivable.”
“And he may not be a red,” Razzavinax added quietly, stroking her hair. “It will be a good many years before he need decide that. In any case, Zanzayed, I cannot imagine you came here to educate my mate on draconic etiquette. In fact, it strains my faculties to infer just what you are doing here. We have a notable lack of wine, music and silk cushions on this island.”
“I bet that contributes to all that going mad you were talking about a minute ago,” the blue said cheerily. “I believe I can feel it starting already. Yoo hoo!” he added, waving exuberantly to the man in white. “Embras, is that you? Fancy meeting you here!”
“Fancy is, I believe, an applicable word,” Embras Mogul replied, tipping his hat to the dragon and dragging his eyes pointedly over Zanzayed’s lavishly embroidered and bejeweled robe.
“We have dragon business to discuss,” the blue said, turning back to Razzavinax. “The kind that should be attended to in private. Obviously the lady has your trust, but Embras should go in search of something else to occupy his attention for the time being.”
“Everyone on this isle is here as my guest, Zanzayed,” Razzavinax remarked pointedly. “Some are less invited than others. Long experience has taught me that of all the fools who meddle in the powers of Hell, Elilial’s chosen are by a wide margin the most responsible, and the most concerned with keeping overall order in the world. Embras is a respected ally and someone with whom I often consult.”
“Be that as it may,” Zanzayed said rather grimly, “I’m afraid I’ll have to insist.”
Razzavinax stroked Maiyenn’s hair again and replied in a very mild tone. “You what?”
“Come on, have you ever known me to be pushy? Or, hell, to take an interest at all? This is important, Razz. I’ve already been to see Puff about this, and that clubhouse of his has got to be the only place on this green world even more tedious than yours. I assure you, when I’m done explaining you will be very glad we didn’t have this discussion in front of the Black bloody Wreath.”
“Does Ampophrenon know you still call him that?”
“Only when I do it to his face,” Zanza replied with a grin, “so yes.”
“Mm.” Razzavinax gazed contemplatively at the blue for a long moment before turning to face the others present. “Embras, I’ll have to ask you to resume our business later. Riz will escort you back to your quarters and attend to any needs you may have.”
“Well, it appears the world is increasingly interesting for everyone,” Mogul remarked, getting to his feet. The succubus bowed to him. “Till later, then.”
The dragons and Maiyenn watched as they disappeared through a curtained doorway at the back of the stage.
“I must say I’ve never seen a succubus who wasn’t…y’know, flouncing and smirking. Or so conservatively dressed. How did you manage to housebreak her?”
“Rizlith is an old friend,” Razzavinax said with a smile. “Last year I obtained a very rare artifact from one of the Deep Hells, a toy used by a demon species there to control the children of Vanislaas. Allegedly it commands absolute, unconditional obedience from them, several steps beyond what the Black Wreath have achieved with contracts and reliquary bindings. She’s testing it for me, seeing if she can work around it or break the effect within a year. The kimono is…shall we say, added incentive. She’s only got six months left, and no progress.”
“Three months,” Maiyenn said, leaning her head against his hand.
Razzavinax blinked, tilting his head to one side. “Why, you’re right, love. By Elilial’s horns, don’t let me forget to release her on time. There’ll be hell to pay if she’s in that thing an hour longer than agreed.”
“I have it well in hand,” Maiyenn replied with a smile. “There’s likely to be hell to pay anyway if you don’t stop putting her in silly costumes.”
“In any case.” Razzavinax turned back to his guest. “I’ll show you to my personal chambers, and then we can see what is so urgent.”
“I must say, it sounds very out of character for Khadizroth,” Razzavinax mused, standing by the window and gazing out at the storm-blasted sea. His chamber was enormous, big enough for him to assume his greater form, and much of it strewn liberally with his hoard. The riches piled in the cavern would have bought a kingdom; Zanzayed, of course, kept his eyes politely averted from it, taking care to stay oriented so that only the smaller nook to one side of the chamber was in his field of view. This was arranged to accommodate more human-sized luxury, complete with a lavish canopy bed, roaring fireplace, piles of embroidered rugs softening the stone floor and even modern fairy lights in decorative sconces. The expensive furnishings were all mismatched, though, as if gleaned from the hoard itself.
Maiyenn had ensconced herself in an armchair by the fireplace with another goblet of steaming hot cider, having dismissed her demon before they came indoors. There was only one window, and it was open to the elements; she kept as far from it as possible, though her gaze stayed unblinkingly on Razzavinax.
“It seems to contradict what you’ve told me about dragonkind,” she said. “And even I know Khadizroth’s name. I agree; it’s surprising that he would do such a thing.”
“Which is precisely why I didn’t take anyone’s word for it,” Zanzayed said with a hint of exasperation. “I did my own research, found the surviving Cobalt Dawn elves in their new homes—several of them, anyway, as I didn’t much feel like fighting with whole groves of elves just to verify somebody’s presence. Moreover, I saw him with my own eyes, which is how I learned the latter and more disturbing part of this affair.”
“Yes,” Razzavinax murmured, “that. So Archpope Justinian has a dragon at his command. That is…absolutely unacceptable.”
“Quite,” Zanzayed said firmly. “Which brings us to now. As I said, I’ve already been to see Ampophrenon. He is seeking out the others, those who can be found and who are willing to listen. As I’m sure you know, in the best-case scenario we’re not likely to rally more than half a dozen unless we start looking on the other continents. Even in the face of a crisis, dragons will be dragons. Naturally,” he added, grinning, “we mutually agreed that Puff was a better emissary for most, but it would be best if I came to speak to you.”
“How refreshing it is to be included,” Razzavinax said solemnly, turning to face him.
“Not just included. You’re… Well, let me put it this way. How the hell did you get all those people up there to sit quietly together? Nevermind them all being warlocks, the politics alone! By all rights that stadium should have been soaked in blood.”
“I assure you, it has been,” the red replied with a thin, humorless smile. “Your problem, Zanzayed, is the same problem that has reduced Ampophrenon’s vaunted Order of the Light to impotent anonymity. All the solutions you seek are through the exercise of power. More and more, the world does not respond to such an approach.”
“Yes, we all know how powerful the humans have become…”
“There! You’re doing it again.” Razzavinax crossed over to Maiyenn’s side, seating himself on the arm of her chair; she leaned against him, closing her eyes. “It is not about power, Zanzayed. It’s about understanding. The humans’ capacity to unleash destructive force is by far the lesser consideration, as they themselves learned when they wiped out Athan’Khar. Such dramatic actions demand a swift and brutal price. The developments that have most changed the face of the world are about connection. Everything is more tightly and intricately linked to everything else; the web expands all the time, even as it solidifies. We are accustomed to being able to act in a relative vacuum. Now, though, moving any one piece on this incomprehensibly vast board shifts them all, and it is simply not possible to foresee how.”
“What’s your secret, then?” asked Zanza.
“It’s hardly a secret; everyone operating in the mortal world has a handle on it—even your Arachne, which is truly astonishing to those of us who know her. If you would move among the mortals, you must move with care and caution, with precision, acting only where you can do so to achieve the effect you want without causing a great destructive shift in the whole interconnected world.”
“I have to say when you describe it that way it doesn’t sound terribly…possible,” Zanzayed said skeptically.
Razzavinax grinned at him. “Oh, it hardly is. In the old days, one simply slew the knight or wizard who came marauding into one’s lair. If they wouldn’t quit, one would go and put their kingdoms to the flame. That’s the approach suitable for dealing with vermin, after all. We cannot consider the mortal races as vermin anymore, Zanzayed. They’re as clever as we, they have new and complex powers, and their greatest strength, as I have said, is in the links they have cultivated with each other. Think of them as…very small dragons.”
“All of them?” Zanzayed asked faintly.
“Some more than others,” Razzavinax allowed. “But in general, yes. Beings with the will, the wits and the capacity to act effectively. Millions of them. The challenge is also the key to solving it: you focus on the connections between them more than the individuals themselves. It’s about manipulation. Politics. Cunning over force.”
Zanzayed sighed heavily. “And this is why I campaigned to have you involved, Razz. You’re right; none of the rest of us are accustomed to dealing with mortals in this way. Even Puff, whose flipping job it is.”
“And that’s why his Order is in decline,” Razzavinax said smugly.
“Are you in, then?”
The red sighed. “I will have to make arrangements for my students… But I don’t see how I can afford to leave this to Puff and…you. Yes, I will support you.”
“Smashing!” Zanza grinned broadly.
“I’m coming with you,” Maiyenn said firmly. “Don’t even try to argue.”
“My dear one,” Razzavinax murmured, lifting her hand to his lips, “why would you think I would permit anything else? I believe we can afford to wait for the little one to come; it shan’t be more than a few weeks.”
“That’ll be good and entertaining,” Zanzayed muttered. “What’s your plan, then? Since you are to be our designated human expert.”
“The Universal Church is a nut not easily cracked,” Razzavinax mused, gazing into the fire and stroking Maiyenn’s hair. “The exact nature of the Archpope’s relationship to the Pantheon is…difficult to tease out. Several of Justinian’s predecessors have engaged in activities that were decidedly against the wishes of the gods. As, certainly, has he. However, he unquestionably enjoys their protection. To come at him with force would be to rile the Pantheon, a thing which has never ended well for out kind. No… Before we act, we will have to investigate.”
“Investigate what?” Zanza demanded. “And how?”
“Why, haven’t you been listening?” Razzavinax smiled at him. “We must discern the nature of Justinian’s connections. Find out who is moving against and around him, and how; where his Church is strong and where it is vulnerable. We must suss out the currents within his organization to learn just how we can separate Khadizroth from his clutches. In short, cousin… It’s high time we paid an extended visit to Tiraas.”