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“Don’t touch the equipment, obviously. The visual effects are harmless and not interactable unless you’re doing magic, so don’t do magic.” Rector paused, looking up from his instrument panel, a construction of modern enchanting parts and engineered dials and levers around a millennia-old Infinite Order data screen, and leveled an accusing finger at one particular member of his audience. “And for anybody who is a living incarnation of magic, that means don’t even think too hard about magic! No focused intent! Do not subjectivize any physical principles!”
Azradeh raised both of her clawed hands innocently. “C’mon, Rector, you know me better than that.”
A wrench bounced off the bridge of her nose. His aim had been steadily improving.
“I shall be the very soul of discretion and restraint,” she promised. “Demon’s honor.”
She didn’t push too hard; it was enough of a privilege to be allowed to observe this event, which was being held in one of the underground experimental chambers beneath the Church Azradeh had not seen before. She didn’t even know how many of these Justinian had authorized, but like the others, this one was a melange of enchanting and engineering equipment completely inscrutable to her built into and around various priceless relics of the Elder Gods. Azradeh had to wonder whether the Universal Church had always had what was probably the world’s largest collection of that old technology or it was all collected by Justinian for his purposes.
Currently, the equipment wasn’t even the most interesting thing present. In the air all around them swirled shapes and sigils of floating light, representing everything from mathematical equations to arcane sigils, rotating around the room in orderly patterns. Orderly, but fiendishly complex.
“Does anything look familiar to you?” the Archpope himself asked her quietly.
Azradeh turned to him, raising her eyebrows. “Is there a reason it should?”
“All right, fixed it,” Rector stated before he could reply. “Yeah… Good, good, piggybacked a translocation signal off the native displacement waves. Using the Golden Sea as a manifestation portal is never gonna be completely stable, but if you want distance, I got that at the cost of precision of placement. Should spit out the target a good distance out past the Great Plains instead of right on the frontier.”
“How much precision did it cost, Rector?” Justinian asked.
The enchanter shook his head irritably, still scowling at his instruments. “Dunno. This is frustratingly vague. Gotta stay at the controls, steer it in real time. Way too many variables to account for—this is just not proper engineering, gonna be at least somewhat intuitive. How much precision you need?”
The Archpope nodded gravely. “If the manifestation will be at a radius outside the Golden Sea, it must be along the southern half. The entire process will be wasted if the subject materializes inside the Dwarnskolds, or flies off over the Stormsea.”
“Doable, no problem,” Rector said brusquely.
“And it must not appear in the vicinity of Last Rock.”
Rector hesitated. “…shouldn’t be a problem. That’s prob’ly too close to the frontier anyway. Straight line from there down to Calderaas, more or less… Yeah, think I can keep it clear of that range.”
“And,” Justinian continued, noting the way Rector’s shoulders immediately tensed, “if possible, I would rather it did not emerge near Veilgrad.”
In the short pause which ensued, the enchanter actually took his hands off the controls to drum all his fingers on the panel. When he finally spoke, his voice was even tighter than usual. “How important is that?”
Justinian had found that dealing with Rector was quite unlike, say, Ravoud, who obeyed him with implicit trust even against his own better judgment. With Rector, he needed to explain his reasons as clearly and in as much detail as possible, as the enchanter would tend to disregard instructions for which he didn’t see the point.
“The entire point of this manifestation will be psychological. We must create shock, and horror. Apart from the benefits of spreading this widely, the people of Veilgrad have always been somewhat inured to that, and have grown especially so after the events of the last few years. In addition, Veilgrad has recently acquired new protectors of significant potency and as yet undetermined capabilities. I would not wish the creature to be dispatched before the paladins can be brought to face it.”
“Not much chance of anything but a paladin doing it,” Rector said, un-tensing slightly. “I will…see what I can do. Not promising anything. Aiming this at the southern half of the radius while avoiding the point in the center of that might be all the precision I can squeeze out of it. Upside is, Veilgrad’s one spot. Worst comes to worst it’s just straight unlikely it’ll pop out there as opposed to any other point.”
“Please do what you can, Rector,” the Archpope urged, nodding at his back. “I have faith in your abilities.”
The enchanter grunted, going back to work.
“So, uh,” Azradeh said quietly, edging up next to him, “aren’t those paladins doing politics at you right now? I’d’ve thought you’d put this on hold while dealing with that.”
“This is me dealing with that,” Justinian said, giving her a sidelong smile. “It’s called asymmetrical warfare; attack your enemy with whatever they can least anticipate and counter. The children did this by moving into an arena in which I have up till now decisively overmatched them. They’ll not expect an abrupt shift back into territory in which they are more comfortable.”
“Huh. Doesn’t that…just give them back the advantage?”
“Momentarily,” he agreed, returning his gaze to Rector’s form, still hunched over the controls and jabbing irritably at the screen. “In the moment after that, it will render all their efforts irrelevant.”
Azradeh idly reached up, letting one stream of symbols pass intangibly through her hand. The visible data swirling around the chamber was all focused upon a point in its center, a save ten yards away from Rector’s control station. There, an elaborate construction of magic and technology surrounded the object at the center of the entire effect, keeping it contained, but visible. Theoretically visible; it was difficult to look at directly. When stared at for a few seconds, the black sliver of bone began to waver, as if shifting color to something in a spectrum she could not ordinarily see.
“I appreciate how you’re always willing to explain things to me.”
Justinian smiled at her again. “Gladly. You were known to be quite the strategist in your previous life; I retain hope that thoughts in that vein may yet jar some memory to the surface. I only regret that I do not have more time to visit with you.”
“Nah, you’re busy, I get it.”
“Do you have to chatter back there?!” Rector exclaimed.
“Oops.” Grinning, Azradeh took a series of loud, stomping steps backward. “I’m withdrawing, Rector! Going back to the wall, out of your radius!”
“Do it quietly! I am trying to focus!”
Pressing her back against the wall, the archdemon raised her claws to frame her mouth and bellowed, “IS THIS FAR ENOUGH?”
He made a sound like a prematurely awakened bear and did not otherwise respond.
Behind him, Delilah slipped discreetly over to the Archpope’s side from where she had been hovering by the door.
“Has this personality clash become a problem?” Justinian asked her, softly enough that Rector could not overhear.
The priestess shook her head, answering in the same near-whisper. “I thought it would, at first, but… She’s very careful not to cross any of his hard lines. It took me a while to realize it, but he actually enjoys having excuses to shout and be grumpy at her. Throwing things at someone who can’t be harmed by it is something of a release. She actually may be good for him.”
“How intriguing,” Justinian said, smiling.
Several yards behind them all and out of anyone’s field of view, Azradeh stepped silently forward, reached out with one hand, and tapped a point in midair. Beneath the tip of her claw, a single fragment of incorporeal data, a paragraph-sized equation, froze in its orbit and adhered to her hand. She swiftly shifted it to a different orbit and then withdrew, leaving it to float off on its way.
Smiling aimlessly, Azradeh once more retreated and leaned against the wall again, humming.
“What is that noise!?” Rector exclaimed.
“Oh, not a fan of lullabies? I take requests!”
He had not hesitated in following Rizlith through the Conclave’s embassy, simply because it was so out of character for her to seek him out. The succubus was a presence Ampophrenon tolerated solely to maintain the peace with Razzavinax, a fact of which she was well aware, and wisely kept her distance from the gold dragon. Now, as she had begged his attention on an urgent matter, he let her lead him deep into one of the embassy’s sub-basements. Wordlessly, Rizlith opened a door Ampophrenon recognized and gestured him through with a deferential bow.
He gave her a nod of acknowledgment as he stepped in, and for a single instant when she started to close the door behind him he considered the possibility of some kind of trap—you could never lower your guard around a child of Vanislaas—but then again, with her errand complete it was just as likely she simply didn’t want to be shut in a room with a gold dragon.
Surveying the scene before him, Ampophrenon amended that supposition to conclude the succubus had probably not wanted to be shut in a room with any of what was going on here.
This was one of the “hoard rooms,” subterranean chambers below the embassy which they had enchanted to be far larger than their physical dimensions, so as to let the dragons have private spaces in which they could rest in their larger forms. None of them, of course, kept an actual hoard here, right under the noses of other dragons; that was a recipe for several kinds of disaster. But they were welcome sanctuaries, nonetheless. This particular cavernous chamber was the private residence Varsinostro the Green shared with his roommate.
Varsinostro himself lay stretched along the ground, half-curled in a protective posture with one arm, his tail, and the edge of his wing enfolding the diminutive figure he clutched against his side. Ampophrenon met the green’s eyes and bowed his head once upon entering his personal space, but thereafter focused his attention on the gibbering elf.
“Where is it, where is the light? It was calm it was so—no, no more. Stop! Stop!” Raash sobbed aloud, actually pounding his fists against the dragon’s armored hide, which of course had not the least effect. At least he wasn’t lashing out with magic. “It’s not dark or light, they’re so angry. It’s wrong! It’s wrong! Please, I can’t make them…” Burying his face against Varsinostro’s side, he heaved silently as he struggled to breathe.
“What has happened to him?” Ampophrenon asked quietly. “Our protections have failed, after all this time?” It had taken some trial and error to refine the magic through which they kept the mad spirits of Athan’Khar from driving the headhunter insane, but not even in his worst moments since coming to the Conclave had Raash been this bad. In fact, this was the worst Ampophrenon had seen him since the four dragons had originally rescued him from Athan’Khar after Khadizroth’s escapade in Viridill. Worse, possibly; then, the elf had been only babbling and incoherent. Now he appeared to be in pain.
“The protection stands,” Varsinostro answered, his voice soft even in the booming resonance granted it by his greater form. “It seems we crafted them to be…inadequate. It is the spirits which have changed; they are riled beyond anything we have seen since Raash came home with us.” With one huge claw, he very tenderly stroked the elf’s hair as he wept silently against the dragon’s hide. “I have been forced to intercede with brute power and prevent him from casting magic. Until this subsides, I can do nothing but stay with him and provide safety, and whatever comfort I may.” His expression was nearly as pained as Raash’s as he looked down at the maddened elf Varsinostro had taken the primary role in managing the headhunter’s condition, and the two had become quite close.
“Zanzayed has already departed for Viridill to check for activity in Athan’Khar itself,” said Razzavinax, who stood to the side in his smaller form. His own face was grave; despite the well-earned reputation red dragons carried, Razzavinax was a self-described people person and disliked seeing anyone suffer needlessly, especially the companion of a fellow dragon. “I’m afraid that may be a mockingjay hunt, though, Ampophrenon. This agitation is severe; it has taken all of Varsinostro’s focus to keep Raash from hurting himself, and my own familiarity with the Athan’Khar spirits is much lesser. Still…I strongly suspect they are reacting to an outside stimulus. This is…reminiscent of the agitations observed along the Viridill border during recorded major chaos events.”
Ampophrenon inhaled slowly, mastering his own alarm. “Then Zanzayed’s errand is worthwhile, even if it is only due diligence. If your suspicion is correct…”
“Even our strength means little against chaos,” Razzavinax agreed grimly. “Raash wasn’t with us during the disaster at Veilgrad, but we all remember how that set off the oracles at the time, and…”
“And this is different,” Varsinostro rumbled. “Sudden, and acute. I can only hope it passes as quickly as it has come on. If not…” Raash groaned and began cursing softly in agonized elvish; the dragon gently rested his chin atop the elf’s head.
“While we’re talking of due diligence,” said Razzavinax, “I think it would be a good idea for you to visit your paladin friend, Ampophrenon; Zanza says she might actually like you more than him, anyway. And then the other two. If there is a major chaos incident brewing, they’ll be needed front and center, and we can provide them quick transport to wherever it occurs.”
“Yes,” Ampophrenon said, narrowing his own eyes. “That raises an ominous prospect, however. The paladins are right now—”
“We know what they’re doing,” the red dragon said, his expression growing steely. “And who will be most inconvenienced if they succeed. In light of what is strongly suspected about his previous involvement in chaos events, isn’t that suggestive?”
“Let us be aware of possibilities without borrowing trouble,” Ampophrenon cautioned. “You are right, though, it is perilously suggestive. And should this suspicion be borne out, his decisive removal will become an urgent priority.”
“I’m glad to hear you say it,” Razzavinax replied, his mouth twisting with black humor. “I’m the wrong color to be safely making pronouncements like that toward the Universal Church or its figurehead. For my part, I’m going to go pull at my connections in the city. We need fresh information, and to be positioned as well as possible for whatever comes next. Varsinostro, I hate to leave you alone with this, but I think it would be a bad idea to have Rizlith in here. I’ll ask Maiyenn to come keep you two company, if you don’t object.”
“She would be welcome, if she is willing,” Varsinostro agreed softly. “Your lady has always had a gentle way with Raash.”
Red and gold nodded at him, and then Ampophrenon stepped forward, reaching out to lay a very soft touch against Raash’s shoulder where it emerged above the tip of Varsinostro’s wing.
“Courage, friend,” he murmured. “We will not desert you.”
Raash shifted his head so Ampophrenon could see one of his eyes, but his stare was unfocused and wild. It was unclear whether he could even see him.
Then the two dragons turned in unison and marched toward the door together. The sight of their grim expressions and purposeful stride would have been enough to make the world tremble, if it could see them.
Even after they had spread the population to well-constructed tents around the lodge’s grounds (well-made structures complete with modern heating charms that were almost like temporary houses, provided by Ravana’s generosity), it was still dense enough with lizardfolk refugees that relatively small incidents could create a stir felt by everyone present. The stir currently underway was not small. As such, Ingvar had been unsurprised when Ilriss, a young lizardwoman apprenticing as a shaman, had run to him frantically demanding his presence.
The Elder had made his semi-permanent home in the great hall of the lodge, with his belongings arranged around a simple pile of sleeping furs near the fire, no barriers or concessions to privacy added. Ingvar respected his dedication to making himself available to his people, and while the lizardfolk remained reluctant to discuss their religious rites, he had inferred that this accessibility was related to the fae ritual by which the Elder had divested himself of his very name.
Admirable as that was, it carried the downside that when something was wrong with the Elder, it spread panic. Now, Ingvar and Ilriss had to push their way through agitated lizardpeople as more received word and streamed into the great hall to spectate. The Shadow Hunters had also begun gathering, and were barely managing to keep order.
“He’s been like this ever since it started,” Ilriss fretted as she finally brought Ingvar to the Elder’s bedside. The old shaman lay on his back, eyes squeezed closed and his face contorted in a grimace of apparent pain; his entire body was tense, nearly arching off the furs, as if he were physically struggling with some weight despite his prone position. “It struck us all, but he…he…”
“The Elder has taken it upon himself,” interjected Fninn, the other junior shaman who most often accompanied the Elder, as Ilriss seemed about to succumb to her own worry. “Something has agitated our familiar spirits. Badly. They screamed in anger and fear, and… The Elder has gathered to himself all their voices, so the rest of us are not affected.”
“All fae spirits?” Ingvar demanded, now recognizing the reason for their alarm. Warnings like that usually heralded some world-altering disaster. He knew a bit about fairy warnings, himself. “Has anyone else felt…?”
He looked around at the onlookers, meeting Aspen’s eyes; she held up both hands. “Hey, don’t look at me. Maybe if Juniper was here…”
“I didn’t feel anything either!” chimed Zap, who as usual was flitting about Ingvar’s head in little bursts of nervous energy.
“I think…not all spirits,” said Ilriss, having regathered some of her poise. “Because of our mission, we are more closely attuned to…certain events.”
“The Elder asked for you, Brother Ingvar,” Fninn added.
“A spiritual disturbance, related to you…” Ingvar trailed off, eyes narrowing as his mind raced ahead.
“Sounds like we better warn that Duchess,” said Aspen.
Ingvar shook his head. “Lady Madouri left very specific instructions; she’s not to be informed of any developments like this unless they affect her personally and are critically important.”
“Huh?” The dryad blinked. “But that’s… I figured she’d be way more of a control freak than that.”
“This is about magic, not conventional operational security. The very reason the Elder gave up his name, and the People have moved in secret.” He met her eyes, keeping his head partially turned so he could still peripherally see the beleaguered shaman. “Recognition by and through spirits. Every conscious mind that’s aware of this is another risk factor. We need to be…careful.” Ingvar returned his full focus to the Elder, who despite having apparently asked for him now showed no sign of being aware of anything beyond his inner struggle. “All right. I want people who can blend in to get down to Madouris and Tiraas and see what they can dig up. November, Dimbi… Is Tholi here?”
“Young hunter,” the Elder suddenly rasped. Ingvar broke off and knelt beside him. The old lizardman lifted one hand into the air, his eyes still closed; Ingvar grasped it and his clawed fingers clutched him as if he were a lifeline. The shaman’s grip trembled with the tension wracking his entire body.
“I’m here,” Ingvar said quietly. “How can I help?”
“The guilty are there,” said the Elder, his voice taut with strain. “Something dark comes. Great and terrible… But not the great doom. A weapon to distract and befuddle. It is not time to address the guilty. The innocent…must be protected. They will come here, the dark and light alike. A soul at the heart of the doom, in need of protection. To these wilds of yours…”
His grip went slack and he grimaced, baring pointed teeth. Ingvar waited for a few moments, but apparently there was no more. Releasing the old shaman’s hand, he slowly stood back up.
“Thank you for the warning, Elder.”
“Uh, I don’t wanna be rude,” said Aspen, “but are you sure…?”
“I’ve learned the hard way to respect the messages of spirits and the shaman who convey them,” said Ingvar. “Very well, you all heard the Elder. Ilriss, Fninn, I trust you to look after him until…whatever this is calms down. Shadow Hunters, we have our own duty. Gear up and prepare to move out.”
“What are we moving out for?” November asked.
“For souls in need,” said Ingvar. “This is why we’re here. To keep watch over these lands.”
“This is a prayer room,” Rasha hissed. “In the Temple! Of! Avei! Do you have any idea the hell there’ll be to pay if you’re caught? And that’s just from the Sisters, never mind when Glory gets her claws into you!”
“Rasha,” Darius said solemnly through the crack in the door leading to the small chamber, “I understand fully. All the risks, and all the consequences. There are just some things that are worth it.”
“Are there?” she growled. “Are they?”
He released the door, still staring at her with his eyes wide and pleading, and held up both hands with his fingers spread in a vulgar squeezing motion. “But Rasha, did you see…?”
She heaved a sigh. “Yes, I saw them. They’re magnificent. The stuff about which legends are sung and odes composed. But, again, this is the Temple of goddamn Avei and that is a prayer room and you two—”
“I know what an imposition this is,” he intoned, then reached out and laid a hand on her shoulder. “Rasha, I didn’t want to play this card, but… If our situations were reversed, you know I’d do it for you.”
Rasha stared at him in silence for a moment. Then Juniper’s face appeared over his shoulder, the same earnest plea in her big brown eyes, and Rasha finally sighed again, even more heavily. “You would, wouldn’t you? Damn it, Darius. You’re such a…bro.”
“Always and forever,” he promised.
“That wasn’t a compliment.”
“I’ll make it up to you.” He was already edging back, the crack in the door slowly diminishing. “I owe you big for this, Rasha.”
“Too right you fucking do.”
“Thanks so much, Rasha,” Juniper added with a winsome smile. “You’re a good friend!”
“No reason you should be bored,” Darius chimed in the last second before he shut the door in her face. “You can go hang out with Zafi!”
Then it closed with a decisive click.
“Zafi is on duty,” Rasha informed the sigil of Avei carved into the wooden surface. “But then again, so are you, in theory.” She turned to look down at Sniff, who stood silently against the wall, peering up at her. “I dunno how you stand it.”
The bird-lizard-whatever made a soft croaking chirp deep in his throat.
“Well, the hell I’m gonna stand here for… Fuck, I give him five minutes, tops. Still not waiting outside. Hold down the fort, Sniff.”
Sniff raised his head crest in acknowledgment. Shaking her own head, Rasha turned and ambled down the hall.
Darius and Juniper were really pushing their luck; this was perilously close to the main sanctuary of the Temple, which was still roiling like a kicked beehive even with Trissiny’s big address concluded. Rasha was just another woman strolling through the furor, idly half-listening to conversations as she passed, many of which were about the Bishop announcement.
It was odd to find herself at loose ends like this. Thumbing the heating charm hidden under the fur-trimmed collar of her dress, Rasha made her unhurried way to the front doors of the temple and slipped out. The fresh winter air was just what she needed, at least with the charm active.
Imperial Square wasn’t a lot more quiet, between its normal traffic and ongoing agitation caused by the back-to-back paladins’ announcements. Rasha herself had been occupied being debriefed about the captured (and then rescued) Purists, but she likely wouldn’t have been inclined to watch politicians giving speeches anyway. No matter how important, and even with one of the politicians in question being a good friend. Somehow, knowing that Trissiny hated being a politician only further soured an arena of action in which Rasha had no inherent interest. With the Purists finally good and done for, she was looking forward to not having to think about any of this crap for a good long while. Just seeing the effect Trissiny, Toby, and Gabriel had had on the capital with three little press conferences was plenty satisfying to her.
Glory would be disappointed, of course, but Glory lived and breathed politics. Rasha appreciated the education in it she was getting, and didn’t deny the importance of understanding the forces that moved people, but she had already decided long since that she wasn’t going to follow in her mentor’s footsteps, at least not directly. Her own path wasn’t quite laid out, but she had time to consider it.
On the Temple’s front colonnade, she finally found a relatively clear space in which to breathe, all the way down at one end beneath the shadow of one massive column. Rasha wasn’t about to leave the Temple grounds; this was as far as she was willing to get from Darius, despite her frustration with both him and Glory’s insistence that she not go off alone. It was still a crowded public space; she could take two steps in several directions and reach out an arm to touch someone, and the babble of excited chatter washed over her from all sides. But it was a spot, clear and open, where she was in no immediate danger of being bumped into and knocked down. For a moment, she just paused there, people-watching.
A single point of pressure poked into the center of her back.
“Good afternoon, Miss Rasha. It has been some time.”
Rasha did not freeze, or panic. Among Glory’s more esoteric training programs had been teaching her to identify various implements being poked into her back; she knew the tip of a wand when it nestled between her vertebrae. She also knew how to act in such a situation. Rasha breathed in and out once, seizing calm like a shield, and then very slowly, giving no cause for a sudden reaction, turned her head just enough to see who was behind her.
As the proper technique for this maneuver dictated, he was standing close enough to her that his body concealed the wand from the numerous onlookers. She found herself looking at a square, bluff face, framed by red hair and a very neatly trimmed beard. Rasha had to pause and reinforce her carefully maintained calm facade. That was a face she had only recently stopped seeing in recurring nightmares.
“Rogrind. And here I thought I was done having to deal with your nonsense. I have moved on to fresh new nonsense, thank you very much.”
The dwarf smiled thinly. “After the catalog of insults and injuries for which you were directly or indirectly responsible? Only an Eserite could be so arrogant. I see your training is progressing well. Please walk forward, miss, at a steady pace, with your hands at your sides and not in or near your pockets.”
“You can’t be serious,” she said incredulously, glancing to one side. There were two Silver Legionnaires not eight feet away. “I don’t remember you being this sloppy. All I have to do is shout.”
The pressure against her back shifted as he adjusted the wand. “At this angle and at this range, a beam weapon of this caliber will sever your spinal cord and destroy most of your heart. Temple or no, there is not a healer alive who could help you then. Yes, I would receive a swift comeuppance; perhaps it would give you some comfort for your last thoughts to be of that.”
“That’s a bluff.”
“Call it, then. Do you know what happens to field agents whose identity is compromised in the course of creating a humiliating public debacle in a foreign capital? You have a great deal to lose, Rasha, including your life. I? Nothing. Walk forward, if you please.”
“Are you sure you wouldn’t rather just goad me into tackling you? C’mon, it’ll be like old times. We can go to jail, reminisce about—”
“That’s very droll, young lady, but my time is short, and thus, so is yours.” He physically pushed with the wand until she had to take a step.
So she did. Keeping her hands still, eyes darting about and mind racing, but moving. Complying, for now. Something would come up; there would be something she could use. There was always something. No situation was hopeless, for a properly prepared mind, and she wasn’t the fresh-off-the-boat kid she’d been when last she’d tangled with the dwarf.
Was he serious? It wasn’t impossible that he was that desperate, but it was also quite likely he was lying. That was the thing about professional spies. They were often both of those things.
“Well, anyway,” she said as they moved in lockstep through the crowd swirling in Imperial Square, keeping her voice even and at a volume he could hear without being loud enough to make him twitchy, “thank you.”
“You didn’t misgender me. Or even start to. My own friends took a while to consistently remember.”
“Please. I am from a civilized country; Svenheim solved its Purist problem years ago.”
“Must be nice.”
“It is. I can see it has been an eventful year for you, but if I may say so, you appear to be flourishing.”
“Good of you to notice.”
She could barely hear his soft sigh over the hubbub of the surrounding crowd. “I fear it makes what comes next rather embarrassing, but surely you of all people will understand the exigencies which can force one to accept…unfavorable allies.”
That was nearly as alarming as the weapon pressed to her spine. He had guided her over to one edge of the Square, and in fact up the sidewalk of one of the main avenues opening onto it. Now, Rasha observed that their destination was a carriage, active and idling in wait.
And in the driver’s seat, another familiar but unwelcome face. Rasha looked up at the grin of savage triumph Sister Lanora wore, and let out a hissing sigh through her teeth.
It came from the Golden Sea, a living streak of smoke and shadow marring the sky. Shooting outward toward civilization like a missile, it seemed to take shape as it progressed, growing in size, developing visible features, and steadily leaving behind a trail of thick black mist that lingered on the air like an ink stain.
The thing soared over an elven grove, sending several shamans into an uncharacteristic panic as fae spirits screamed in horror at its passing, and for the first time spread its wings. They were skeletal, with none of the membrane between their long fingers that should serve to hold it aloft, had its flight been a matter of aerodynamics.
In fact, it was entirely skeletal, a fact which became more clear as it traveled and continued to form. Black bones were rough, jagged as if every one had been repeatedly broken and improperly healed, and fully exposed. In fact, though its shape suggested a skeleton, it looked more as if it were formed of shards of volcanic glass, haphazardly glued together. Color emerged from the swirling darkness of the thing’s being as its wings began to beat against the air, spraying swirls of inky smoke. Ligaments and tendons materialized, growing more like fungus than tissue to connect its shattered bones. They were purple, glossy as jewels and faintly luminous, what little could be seen of them through the haze of its body. Rather than flesh, the creature formed a steady outward bulk of vapor, a black mist which continued to billow out behind it with the speed of its passing, roiling and only partially obscuring its craggy inner workings.
Mountains rose up ahead, and at their base, a city of spires and terraces perched along a peninsular plateau which extended out over the surrounding plains. As the thing shot toward this landmark, it finally opened its eyes.
They were brightly colored, in a color that made no sense, that was painful to observe and not expressible in the spectrum of visible light. When they opened for the first time, a pulse burst out from the foul beast, flattening a stretch of tallgrass.
It shifted its trajectory, shooting upward with a powerful flap of its skeletal wings, and slowed as it soared higher… Only to descend upon Veilgrad from above, giving the unprepared city just enough time to see it coming.
Wings spread, it landed upon the cathedral, the impact collapsing part of the roof and sending its ancient stone spire tumbling to the streets below in pieces. The wings remained fully extended in an animalistic threat display as screams and alarm bells began to sound in all directions. Drawing its sinuous neck up and back, it opened its angular jaws and emitted a noise that was at once a roar, a hiss, and a scream, an unearthly sound which clawed at the mind as much as at the ears.
The chaos dragon howled its challenge to an unprepared world.
46 thoughts on “16 – 47”
Sorry for the delay. This chapter took longer in part because I wasted a lot of time (on top of my ongoing struggles writing in general) on content that I ended up cutting because I realized it was superfluous and just bogging down the story. So, that was annoying, but at least the finished chapter isn’t too unwieldy in size, and I ended up pleased with the way it took shape.
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Don’t worry:) I like big chapters, and this one is good.😊
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Did Justinian just resurrect/reanimate/revive Balosiphon the Black?
That’s all kinds of ungood. In a truly epic fashion.
At least it’s Veilgrad, where people are relatively used to weird, and where there are people who can identify the threat and ensure the right kind of reinforcements are called for.
A Dwarven Intelligence service is working with the Purists? That’s going to end in tears. And I’m forced to wonder about Justinian’s connections with the dwarves. Remember – back when Khadizroth and company were planning on not giving Justinian the skull of Belosiphon, and planning on giving it to the dwarves to bury, Justinian also had agents where they were going to deliver it.
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I suspect that is an enchanted golem made out of the dragon’s skull designed to be an excellent distraction, and not a case of fully functional necromancy.
Also, if this dwarf was telling the truth he is not one of the Svenheim intelligence professionals anymore. That would fit with what it looks like he’s doing, which is working for hire to scum sucking randos after getting fired with prejudice. Considering how utterly he failed at dealing with the divine disruptor, and then lost the secret of mundane firearms to the Avenist order while he was doing it on top of that, his claim is rather plausible.
And Eserion damnit Darius, you had one job!
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To be fair, it’s at least partly Rasha’s fault too for wandering outside. She should have known that getting a wand to the back was a possibility; hell, she’s actually taught to do this same trick herself!
Kind of rolling my eyes at Rasha being taken hostage *again*, frankly. Practically every time we see her she’s getting bundled off in a sack somewhere. It’s such a pattern at this point I’m wondering if Rasha is Tanglish for Peach. 🙂
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It’s not totally incorrect to claim that this is partly on Rasha for running off somewhere inadequately protected. Still, what she was running away from was Darius not-doing his job so offensively she felt the need to go far away from him.
And yeah, Rasha the repeated target of kidnapping is standing out here as a thing. I’m not even sure why these bigots want her at this point, unless it’s a second go at starting a war between Avenists and Eserites by being seen killing Rasha. My next best guess is it’s some daft human sacrifice ritual plan intended to make Avei a recipient of a burnt, “heretic,” “sinner,” against femininity. Maybe neither of those two things are it, but I struggle to imagine possibilities that are not asinine or farcically evil for what they’re trying to accomplish with their idiot plot.
Frankly, I know real life does have people, groups and entire institutions which are stupid and horrible enough to make this seem realistic in comparison. Still, despite the actual ludicrous violence, malicious disregard, other harm, and actual murder suffered by transgender people at the hands of bigots in the real world I’m starting to find this portrayal of people intolerant of them to be counter-productively degrading. It’s making me feel sympathy for them in light of how this author is refusing to treat them as better than corrupt, cowardly, scenery-chewing, melodramatic, villainous idiots: One of the key revelations to come out of the Nuremberg trials was that Nazis were people too, even most of the truly guilty ones were not abnormally weird, stupid or horrible. Pretending otherwise is exactly the same kind of dehumanizing incitement to violence that the problematic bigots are habitually guilty of.
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It is a projection of some kind. The skull is on the moon and i dont think he would unleash its full power this easyly
All ennemies of the Archpope will know he is behind it. He’s untouchable, but would it be feasible to organise a shadow campaign against Church assets and personnel, including sabotage and assassinations? Especially now that the 3 major cults left it. And the Legions and the Guild, who would be the best positioned to stop it, will not help it.
I could see the Thief Guild (including Flora and Fauna in headhunter mode) and the Legion commanded by Principia doing covert operations to disrupt the Church, alongside Imperial Intelligence. Maybe Natchua and the Wreath could begin too, after the beast is vanquished. Even if the various factions don’t cooperate, all these efforts could be fatal for the Church.
The problem is that we’ve already heard that Justinian plans to be universally hated. On top of that, this political factional conflict is likely to either be what Justinian wants or the mother of all distractions while he achieves some other goal. Frankly, whether he is one or not what he’s up to here fits perfectly for what a loyal, Scyllithene operative would want to do in his shoes.
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I expect the dragon is a fake. Immensely powerful but… still only a sliver of a real Black Dragon, summoned from the energy salvaged from the skull.
Probably not the real thing and quite possibly a shadow of it’s former glory but still. Chaos is seeping everywhere, disrupting amd even corrupting everything. Even the head alone was enough for causing quite the problem. With it now animated, in posession of a whole body and most possibly magic… This is a large scale threat and deadly serious.
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“I come from a civilised country, we dealt with our purist problem long ago.” – Proceeds with handing over Rasha to a purist.
Talk about double standards.
Also, Natch neck deep in s*** again. Just as she thought she’s finally managed, Justinian drops a Chaos Dragon into her lap. Welp.
Also, seriously? I mean I get the whole distraction part, but… this is really large scale, so many people getting hurt or tainted by that chaos thing. Chaos is even worse than hellgates, so …damn.
Also, Azradhe is definitely up to something. Justinian said she was a strategist back in the day… but are we sure that she really does not remember? Justinian explicitly saying he doesn’t want this dragon anywhere near Veilgrad and her manipulating stuff… And the dragon landing directly in the middle of Veilgrad. Hmmm….
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But what a distraction…
The paladins are of course going to respond and of course they know he has it.
Ampophrenon is going to go nuts. A Black Dragon has appeared and their banners formally note Black and Silver are welcome. No one is going to welcome the Chaos dragon, but we’ve been told Ampophrenon wants to become a Silver Dragon; something the Archpope can stop the Gods from giving. Silver is what should counter Black and there will be a strong pressure to form that.
If we assume the ex-Purists are still in Justinian’s employ, even a little, then this is yet another front being opened up. The way Trissiny dealt with it was correct and exactly what was expected, so we can assume he’s still got his fingers on them.
All in all, this distraction will cause a ton of hate and problems but gives him time and more leverage.
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> Ampophrenon wants to become a Silver Dragon; something the Archpope can stop the Gods from giving.
If he realizes that’s on the table…
She may not remember, but she still has a lot of the instincts.
And she doesn’t trust Justinian.
So even if her memory started coming back, or parts of it, she’d hide it.
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That’s exactly what I’m implying here. That she’s using her stategist mind against him.
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The moment Justinian mentioned he didn’t want it near Veilrad I knew that was where it would spawn. He has too many trickster gods working against him whenever he’s not maintaining his control over them.
Now for the betting game: Has Justinian the master empath/telepath/brainwasher noticed or even deliberately trained Azradeh not trusting him? It could be that his talents don’t work on her, or that they don’t fully work on her, because of who and what she is. If his talents work well enough this could’ve been a test or reverse psychology of the Br’er Rabbit, “Don’t fling me in that brier-patch!” kind. If it’s a test or trick against Azradeh then the fact that Veilgrad is a normal place for weird things like his distraction dragon to show up is good for Justinian’s plausible deniability over this incident.
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Agreed with anonymous coward (what a name), though I can’t reply to that message specifically for some reason.
I think that was Justinian seeing where Azradhe is at. If the dragon pops up away from Veilgrad, Azradhe isn’t moving against him yet, and he accomplishes his stated goals. If it does pop up at Veilgrad, she must have manipulated the situation, and he gets confirmation. There were other opportunities there, too. Don’t show up at Last Rock, for example. Justinian just had to find one that Rector wouldn’t practically guarantee against.
The thing with Justinian is that he’s the best kind of villain: he wins even if he “loses”. He stated reasons why the dragon being in Veilgrad would be bad, but he never weighed the pros, and now we’ll see all the various pros involved.
I’m wondering if that move didn’t cause him to checkmate himself, though; a Chaos Dragon, even a facsimile of one, is a Paladin’s job to put down, and I’m not sure that he’s aware of Natch’s status.
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I don’t think he’s aware of it. The only people who know are Elilial, the Wreath, Natchua and her crew. And I don’t see how he could have compromised any of them.
Keep in mind that Azradeh messed with the magical array before it was cast. How much do you want to bet she’s the one who sent the dragon to Veilgrad specifically because Justinian said he didn’t want it there.
Damn, Veilgrad just kinda sucks huh?
TBH I thought he was planning on resurrecting another one of Elilials daughters and just didn’t want her near Veilgrad to avoid pressure on that area. But as soon as it became a chaos dragon, I’m not surprised at all that Chaos! ended up back there again. Because Veilgrad sucks.
And because it’s Chaos!, I fully expect that even if it’s just a necrogolem, it’s probably going to fully resurrect because Chaos!. Which means this is when Ampophrenon gets to be empowered to a Silver Dragon like he’s always dreamed and possibly be removed from the playing field to Heaven (thus removing a major superpower from interfering with Justinians plans)? At least I assume Silver Dragons are removed from the mortal realm after they’ve killed their counter Chaos Dragon.
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Typo: a save ten yards save => safe.
Thanks for the chapter.
Well, that’s going to draw the attention of a Paladin right quick, just not one that Justinian meant it to or even knows about.
Cue Natchua, Hand of Elilial…
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She will probably be immune to the mental effects of Chaos (she will not become mad), but Malivette and all the demons, being magical creatures, are in trouble.
So let’s see… Justinian’s distraction has already gone awry, landing in one of the places he didn’t want it to go. Maybe he forgot that a dragon-golem can fly where it wants to, such as the place where its skull rested for so long? And Justinian might be too focused on the paladins; as Mindsword2 points out, this is an opportunity for Ampophrenon to go Silver, if Justinian doesn’t think to counter that — or can’t cover all the bases at once. Not to mention the fae outrage — which also suggests that one of the Elder Gods might eventually get involved too.
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Come to Veilgrad! Cheapest realestate on the whole continent! All the excitement you can handle (or not)! You’ll not be living in an interresting place as much as in interresting times!
That’s about it, yes?
I guess Azradeh recognizes and understands more about that magic than she wants to let on. More than Rector understands, any, which surprises me—-it sounds like he was doing all he could to place the chaos dragon within a certain arc and minimum radius from the center of the Golden Sea, whereas she was able to nudge it to exactly where Justinian didn’t want it to go. Unless, of course, this is a double bluff of some kind of Justinians—after all, why exactly is he letting Azradeh watch this in the first place, and making sure she knows exactly where he (supposedly) wants and doesn’t want the dragon to pop up?
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Well, he does want Azradeh to trust him, so it could be as simple as that.
Yahoo! Really exciting chapter. Narratively speaking, I’m happy Skull gun has been fired. I mean, I guess that’s not a thing to celebrate for the sake of my attachment to the characters and their world, as it sounds utterly horrifying for everyone. Even if the paladins do put him down there’s likely still gonna be significant cost to all involved. Plus, there’s the possibility that now Puff goes silver, and that’s both wonderful and terribly considering the eventual fate of silver dragons. So….wait, I guess I hope he doesn’t get his heart’s desire?
Anyway, I really like the follow up with so many open threads this chapter. And that Rogrind isn’t just an antagonist who disappeared once defeated.I’m really curious how this all plays out. I love interactions with dwarves when they’re antagonists–their whole “we’re civilized, and we’re doing things right, and you’re the problem, here” while indirectly and sometimes directly threatening people with violence is such a fun dynamic. I love how consistently all characters act as though they’re the hero of their own story who just has to make some hard choices, which just makes sense, and still gives the space to create plenty of character conflict.
Also! I did say I’d live for even any vague reference to Puff and Triss’s growing connection, and my sad, hopeless little heart jumped for joy at this chapter.
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Someone is really playing the “Damsel in distress” card with Rasha. How many times will she have to be rescued before the last opposition to trans rights are exterminated?
Nice to see that Azradeh uses her limited freedom to mess with Justinians plans though.
I wonder about the timing, does the dragon reach Veilgrad just when Natchua’s and Morguls little meet ends?
“[Its eyes] were brightly colored, in a color that made no sense, that was painful to observe and not expressible in the spectrum of visible light.”
The color is obviously Octarine.
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I mean I know D.D Webb hadn’t read any Discworld novels when they started writing this and named the school Unseen University… but that was back in 2014, so who knows if they’ve read any of them since them.
I am fed up with Darius’ arrogance and nonchalant disregard for things non esserion.
This most probably a great chapter, I can’t deny that .
But after that last chapter where Justinian Trump’s the paladins three in one , the duchess getting more and more involved with Trissiny and co’s plans( up to now ,I still don’t get why she is even that much close to Trissuny’s group and plans), the lack of progress in dealing with Justinian, and this chapter reminding me of the hopelessness of the fight against an archpope who is constantly holding all the cards no matter what disadvatages he is dealt, i can’t muster much interest in this story. The hopelessness is just getting to me.
I think after this book is finished , I might stay away from the story for a long time. I can’t bear it anymore.
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I can explain why Ravana Madouri is digging deep into this conflict: She has been warned that Justinian is a snake, that he’s firmly behind the paternalist Shaathists, and that she is picking a fight with him by supporting Ingvar’s traditionalist Shaathists, the three Paladins, and Teal Falconer. She also is noted to have a tendency for rapid, brutal, and overwhelming assault on people identified as dangerous enemies, to the point it has been described as a reckless and morally hazardous failure of character on her part.
I have, of all the stupid goddamn things, a serious fingertip injury. Gave myself a nice deep trio of cuts trying to wash a fancy kitchen gadget my roommate bought. Left index fingertip, one of the most used on a QWERTY keyboard. Gonna let it mend a bit overnight and then see if I can resume typing with some careful padding. Chapter tomorrow, sorry again for delaying.
Is it my imagination or does the dumbest fucking nonsense happen to me? I’d almost feel better if it was some real, respectable tragedy, but no. Dishwashing injury. Fuck’s sake.
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Like they say, real life is weirder than fiction, because fiction has to make sense. But this sort of thing is why I put you into the TVTropes page for TGAB. 😉
“Born Unlucky: The author.”
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Nobody said it.
Jumping the gun.
Oh, Lanora, did you miss the memo? It was taped to a furious goddess telling you your bigotry is badwrong and definitely not approved? Or could literal divine intervention not penetrate your sense of self-importance?
And we have a Chaos dragon. Justinian was right, if there was one way to relegate the three biggest cults withdrawing from the Universal Church on a matter of principle to page four, this would do it.
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So a mini-apocalypse starts and Darius is caught with his pants down, literally and figuratively. You don’t have to be an avenist to be insulted by them hooking up in a prayer room of all places. The fact that he was supposed be watching his friends back just makes it worse. I wouldn’t have expected Juniper to know any better, her free love philosophy may as well have been pulled from the head of hippy in the 1960’s. But Darius is apprenticed to one of the competent mentors of the thieves guild, he should really know better than thinking with his dick in the middle of an emergency. He’s like Gabe, if Gabe hadn’t gotten a bunch of character development.
That aside, Azradeh’s sabotage is intriguing. Which really does make you wonder whether it was reverse psychology on Justinian’s part. I’m actually surprised he could get that much accuracy in the first place. Chaos is notorious for being too difficult for anyone to handle, let alone with any degree of precision. Will be interesting to see how it plays out.
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The Conclave is supposed to represent dragons of all 6 colors, right? Includung black?
Puff going Silver is one thing, but I almost wonder if some of the Conclave will wind up on Team Belosiphon. And if splitting up the Conclave or turning everyone else against them might be Justinian’s plan…
Belosiphon was a Black Dragon, and that would have been okay. Albeit extremely concerning for lots of people both inside and outside the Conclave.
But then he succumbed to Chaos corruption and became a Chaos Dragon … which is entirely unacceptable.
No, none of the Conclave are going to want to bring this iteration of Belosiphon into the Conclave – he’s Chaos, now, not truly an Infernal paragon Black.
Containing Belosiphon when he went Chaos the first time around was bad enough.
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