Tag Archives: Ampophrenon the Gold

16 – 27

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“I dare to hope this will not take long, but it doesn’t pay to make excessively optimistic assumptions about wholly unprecedented events,” Ravana said, coming to a stop in the middle of the marble-floored parlor adjacent to her chambers which she had designated an official teleportation arrival and departure point. “Regardless of how much time this demands, Veilwin, I’ll expect you to remain sober for the duration, and I will have Yancey enforce this if need be. Take us to the lodge, please.”

The elf wasn’t even looking at her, staring at one of the doors to the chamber with her eyes narrowed. Yancey quirked an eyebrow at this, which was as voluble an expression of disapproval as he ever produced in the presence of the Duchess.

“Veilwin?” Ravana prompted. “While we’re young, please.”

“Hang on,” the sorceress replied. “There’s news coming that I think you’ll wanna hear.”

Ravana bit back her instinctive reply, reminding herself that there was no point in having an elf as her Court Wizard if she wasn’t going to take advantage of all the fringe benefits.

Indeed, it was only seconds later that the pounding of booted feet came into the range of human hearing, and moments after that, the door burst open to admit the commander of her House Guard—likely the only person who could have dashed through the halls of Madouri Manor without being detained by soldiers.

“My lady!” he exclaimed upon finding her waiting, barely out of breath. “Thank the gods I caught you. There’s a situation unfolding in front of Falconer Industries you’ll want to see.”

“Lord-Captain Arivani,” she replied evenly, “there are hundreds of inexplicable refugees attempting to cross my lands, and currently detained by Sheriff Ingvar in a facility which does not have the resources to keep them. Is this more important than that?”

“I…couldn’t say, my Lady,” he admitted. “But it was your explicit instruction that any incidents of public rebellion against your authority be brought directly to your attention.”

“Gods send me patience,” Ravana hissed. “Rebellion, is it? Very well, Lord-Captain, you are correct. This I want to see. How great is the danger?”

“My men have secured the roof of the tariff office just across from FI, my Lady. It has a good view of the action.”

“Excellent work. Veilwin, it seems we shall be taking a detour before visiting the lodge, after all.”

“Yeah,” the elf said smugly, already making one of her needlessly dramatic hand gestures as sparkles of arcane light gathered in the air around the four of them. “I had a feeling.”


The rest of the excursion was uneventful and smooth, even to the extent of the entire party being teleported back to the Conclave embassy in Tiraas with a minimum of backtalk, which likely was exactly why Ampophrenon chose that moment to spring his surprise.

“Principia Locke may deny involvement in classical adventuring, but it is clear she understands the practicalities better than one who has learned of them only from books,” the gold dragon said as he and Trissiny talked quietly a bit apart from the rest of the group, who were being courteously given a city map and directions from the Conclave’s public steward. “The division of deployed assets into five-person bands is traditional for good reason, and her training style is exactly that which got the best results from the greatest adventurer guilds, when they still operated.”

“I’m relieved to hear that,” Trissiny admitted. “It all seemed a little chaotic to me.”

“In comparison to a proper military boot camp, I shouldn’t wonder,” Ampophrenon replied with some amusement. “But the looser approach will help enforce standards while respecting the freedom agents like that require, and she has applied the necessary strictures to keep everyone on task and aimed at the same goals—methods developed over centuries. Locke was either in one of those guilds at some point, or has studied them extensively. Altogether, General, I deem it a most promising endeavor, and an enjoyable visit on my part. I only regret I was unable to speak with Khadizroth, but doubtless he has his own tasks to pursue.”

Snuck in at the end as it was, that stinger had the desired effect of rocking Trissiny’s composure—not by much, but she failed to suppress a slight jerk of her head.

The dragon’s monochrome eyes made it impossible to tell exactly where he was looking, but his expression and the position of his head gave her the impression of someone watching her sidelong for exactly such a reaction.

“If I might ask a favor, General Avelea,” Ampophrenon continued in the same courteous tone before she could recover, “when next you see Khadizroth, I wonder if you would be so kind as to pass along to him that he is always welcome to join us here.”

The extra few seconds were enough for her to regain her footing, though this had altogether been a valuable reminder that she wasn’t equipped to play mind games with a being such as he.

“Attempting to poach my personnel, Lord Ampophrenon?” Trissiny replied, raising her eyebrows and affecting a bland tone. “I could call bad form.”

The dragon’s lips quirked in a faint smile, but his voice remained as even and mannerly as ever. “I suspect you must be aware that the Conclave’s formation was inspired in part by Khadizroth’s own adventures of the past few years. We do not compel any of our brethren to join, but all have a place with us should they choose it. In any case, we have long since opted not to pursue any action against Khadizroth for his various errors in judgment, in particular as he has been helpfully in contact with us concerning the deeds of Archpope Justinian.”

“Has he.”

“This was before he enlisted in the First Legion,” Ampophrenon clarified. “We have not heard from him since. It seems needlessly vindictive to castigate one of our own for errors which he has fully committed himself to correcting, in his own way. Perhaps a stint in Avei’s service will provide him the penance he seeks, as well as the opportunity to effect some progress in undoing Justinian’s schemes.”

“So,” she said, watching him intently, “you are aware of the Archpope’s…ambitions.”

“Their specifics are frustratingly obscure, but we make it a point to be as aware of the world as possible, and I in particular am quite concerned with such a betrayal of the Pantheon’s most sacred charge,” the dragon said gravely. “I lack your insight into the recent events at the Temple of Avei, but even from the reports that reached me I can discern a pattern. It seems to me, General Avelea, that this is no time for those of us who are driven by principle to let ourselves be divided by misunderstandings. Khadizroth’s place among your Legion will not be a sticking point between the Sisterhood and the Conclave. On that you have my word.”

He smiled, the expression calm and open. After a moment, Trissiny had to smile back.

That silence hung for a few seconds, in which her own expression faded back to thoughtfulness, and Trissiny decided to accept his implied invitation by taking a slight risk.

“Where do they all come from?” she asked quietly, making a subtle gesture toward the two Conclave soldiers currently talking with her own party. Joe was well-mannered as always and McGraw seemed likewise, but the two Avenist priestesses—despite the fact that neither of them would be taken for such at a glance, which was no doubt part of what they were doing here—seemed openly skeptical. “If the Conclave had been scouring the streets of Tiraas for every pretty woman who might want a job…that’s the kind of thing the Sisterhood would notice.”

“Indeed,” he acknowledged, nodding once. “It was, in fact, the opposite; the Conclave did not elect to employ many of those who first sought us out, as they were a melange of opportunists and spies. Instead, my brethren have recruited from among the most unfortunate. Employment here comes with a very progressive package of benefits, including medical care by green dragons, which in addition to being better than most nobles receive, includes cosmetic glamour of the recipient’s choice. A proper application of the fae craft can even suppress the effects of chemical addiction.”

For a moment, Trissiny was again rendered silent by the weight of it. If they could gather drunks and shroomheads out of the gutters and turn them into this… Well, it explained a great deal. And raised further questions.

“I gather,” she said aloud, “such benefits would be suspended if the individual in question left the Conclave’s service. That is quite an incentive for loyalty, Lord Ampophrenon.”

He nodded again, his expression more grim. “It becomes inherently somewhat coercive, does it not? To say nothing of the implications of deliberately recruiting among the most unfortunate in the first place. There is also the fact that such exotic benefits are a ruthless cost-saving measure, as people willingly work for less than the average wage to have access to them. I raised these concerns with my fellow members of the Conclave, who it must be said indulged me in a full meeting to discuss the matter. Ultimately, their decision was that since no one is being forced to do anything against their will and our compensation is the finest they could ever hope to receive, we are not committing any ethical violation.”

“I see,” she said, not meaning her voice to be cold but hearing it anyway.

“The Conclave of the Winds is a necessity of this political moment,” the dragon said softly, now gazing across the great hall of the embassy. “More importantly, it presents the hope of betterment, for both your kind and ours. Our institutions are never perfect, Trissiny. Governments, faiths, the Church itself, my own Order of the Light… All are unavoidably flawed. I believe the Eserites have a saying about this.”

“I’ve heard it a time or two,” she agreed wryly. The dragon gave her a sidelong smile.

“Yet we cannot abandon them,” he continued, his expression quickly sobering again. “The world is always somewhat…broken. I have come to think it is meant to be. Can you imagine a world with no hardship—or more farfetched, with no difficult decisions to be made?” Ampophrenon shook his head. “Such eternal complacency could only bring out the worst in us all. We are tested, yes, constantly. It is our duty, and our only option, to rise to these trials, and make what difference we can.”

“People have often said to me that the gods never test us beyond what we can bear.”

His lips thinned for a moment. “I have seen far too many people destroyed by trials they had no reasonable hope of overcoming. Good people, who were sorely missed. Life is not so conveniently purposeful. And yet, we stand.”

“What else can we do?” she whispered.

The dragon inclined his head to her, the gesture both a nod and a bow. “I enjoy your conversation, General Avelea. You, too, are always welcome here. Feel free to call up on me if I can aid your battles, however overt or subtle they may be. Or simply if you wish to visit.”

“Thank you for everything today, Lord Ampophrenon,” she replied, nodding back. He gave her a final smile before retreating to the stairs.

Trissiny turned around, finding her own party approaching at the signal that her conversation had ended. Zanzayed, somewhat to her surprise, was still with them, and it was he who spoke up before any of them could.

“You do realize he was hitting on you, right? You’re exactly his type, Trissiny.”

“Really, Zanzayed,” she sighed.

“Hey, you’re family! I wouldn’t lead you wrong. I’m serious, Puff absolutely does have a type, and it’s ‘Hand of Avei.’ He’s had seven of ‘em over the years.”

“The hell you say!” Shay Iraa exclaimed.

A silence fell over the chamber as the various dragonsworn present turned to stare at the rough-looking woman who had just sassed a dragon right to his face. Sister Shay was still glaring at Zanzayed, clearly not bothered by any of this. Trissiny was already beginning to like her.

“Yeah, they don’t teach you that, do they?” the blue rejoined, smirking. “You’ve got the rank to bully your way into the Sisterhood’s hidden archives; do it if you’re curious, Triss. But seriously, though. If you decide to pursue that, wait till you’re ready to settle down. Puff is a nice, old-fashioned, marriage-minded dragon. Don’t toy with his little heart.”

“Well, he did invite me to drop by,” she said. “Maybe I’ll come around sometime and see what other hilarious gossip you’ve accumulated over the millennia, cousin.”

Zanzayed grinned. “Always a pleasure. Do give Arachne my love.”

“If you keep trying to get a rise out of me, I’m gonna tell her you challenged her to a duel.”

“You are a horrible little wench,” the dragon chuckled, ruffling her hair. “You’d better come visit. We need to hang out more.”


“’Rebellion’ may have been overstating it, Lord-Captain, but you were still correct to bring this to me,” Ravana said, lowering the spyglass from her eye and handing it to Yancey. “Has this demonstration shown any signs of becoming violent?”

“No, my Lady,” he admitted. “There’s at least one Omnist monk in there, which is probably helping keep things calm. So far they’re just marching in a circle with those signs. But they’re blocking the factory’s main entrance, which is not doing FI any favors.” Yancey handed him the spyglass after having a look, and he raised it to his own face, which fell into a scowl as he studied the demonstrators. “Unwashed ingrates. If the young Mrs. Falconer and her wife want to slaughter idiots who tried to steal their dog, what business is it of theirs? It wasn’t even in Madouris.”

“You’re asking for whatever you get, fucking with somebody’s pets,” Veilwin opined, looking bored. “I’d’a just killed the bastards.”

“I pity any poor animal which has to depend on you for care,” Ravana said absently, herself frowning in the direction of the protest. It was sizable, already more than thirty people. She wouldn’t have thought there were that many people in the city who’d be willing to protest Falconer Industries, which was deservedly popular. If anything, they were risking retaliation from FI’s own employees, who had famously once squared off with Thieves’ Guild enforcers. The House Madouri guardsmen currently standing in a line in front of the closed gates were probably protecting the demonstrators as much as the factory, whether they knew it or not.

Yancey, as usual, echoed the direction of her own thoughts. “Several of those signs mention Vadrieny by name, my Lady. While not a secret, the archdemons have been absent from the mortal plane since the Hellwars; their names were reduced to obscure theological trivia before the founding of the Empire. It does not prove anything…”

“And yet,” she murmured in agreement.

“Madouris is prosperous under you,” Veilwin added, which may have been the closest thing to a compliment she had ever paid her employer. “And most of those yahoos look pretty well dressed. Takes a lot to get comfortably well-fed people out in the goddamn snow at mid-morning on a workday to march around chanting slogans. Especially over something that clearly doesn’t affect them at all.”

“I did wonder at the attempted kidnapping,” Ravana mused. “Apart from my expectation of better treatment from the Thieves’ Guild, such a fool’s gambit is unlike them. As a deliberate provocation, it makes more sense.”

“Give the word, my Lady,” Arivani urged grimly, “and I can have my men clear that rabble into cells where they belong.”

“No!” she barked, causing him to jerk back in surprise. His startled expression quickly morphed into near-hurt reproach before he mastered it.

Ravana took a breath of the chill air, reminding herself what she was dealing with. She employed Ludo Arivani because he believed the sun shone out of her skirts, because an administration such as hers which favored the velvet glove over the iron fist absolutely needed a high-ranking thug for situations in which its preferred approach would not do, and because it was generally advisable to keep a military commander who hadn’t the aptitude to organize a coup, even had he been inclined to try. Also, men like him came in useful in the event of regrettable situations in which a scapegoat needed to be discarded. All of this factored into her handling of him; it was for these reasons precisely that she had made it clear he was not to try to deal with civil unrest except under her direct oversight.

“I have made carefully-cultivated popularity a cornerstone of my rule,” she explained in a more moderate tone. “The damage caused to my reputation by engaging in the type of brutality for which my father was notorious would be catastrophic. That, I suspect, is at least part of the reason for this…episode.”

The Lord-Captain nodded, seeming mollified by the explanation. “I’ve got men under my command who’re good at knife work and listening in the dark, Lady Madouri. We can avoid more episodes like this if you’ll let me spread them through the city.”

“Madouris is not a sovereign state,” she said patiently. “I can have my own propaganda machine or my own secret police, and the one I chose is already pushing the Throne’s tolerance. If I tried to have that slice of cake and eat it too I would be set upon by the Veskers and Imperial Intelligence. I need neither headache, let alone both.”

And so she lacked convenient knives in the dark, as indeed Lord Vex would never tolerate that, but there was also the fact that her network of listeners spread through the province did not report to Arivani; he didn’t need that kind of influence. More immediately, those listeners had not forewarned her of this. A demonstration of this size could not be assembled in total silence. Thus, it had not sprung up organically. This had been orchestrated; the question was by whom?

“Veilwin,” she said, staring at the protesters through narrowed eyes, “can you work any kind of divination which would isolate members of that crowd who were set there as deliberate agitators, rather than the gullible sheep I must presume most of them to be?”

“Come on, you know better than that,” the sorceress said brusquely, ignoring Arivani’s displeased glare at her tone, “you study at Tellwyrn’s school. You’re talking about fae divination, not arcane scrying.”

“That is what I feared,” Ravana said with a sigh. “Then do you believe Barnes is competent to perform such a ritual?”

Veilwin snorted loudly. “That puffed-up—”

“Veilwin,” she interrupted in an unusually steely tone, “I put up with a great deal from you, and mean to continue so doing. In return, I expect the skills for which I generously compensate you to be available when I need them. It’s time to work. In your professional opinion, with no needless inter-disciplinary sniping, can Barnes do this?”

“Well…sure,” the elf said, her voice more subdued. “Any witch could, and…yeah, he’s better than most. But that’s contingent on the targets not having been warded against it, which when it comes to fae magic, well… That ends up being a pissing contest between Barnes and whoever’s at the other end, which there’s just no way to call in advance.”

Ravana nodded once.

Arivani opened his mouth to speak, but she held up one hand for silence, and he obediently subsided. She stared sightlessly out over the square ahead and the chanting individuals currently complaining about the violent archdemon in their midst, eyes shifting rapidly back and forth as she contemplated.

“Lord-Captain,” the Duchess said at last, “these…specially skilled soldiers you mentioned. Are there any among your command who could discreetly join that crowd, out of uniform and without revealing their affiliation, and agitate them to attack the factory?”

Veilwin turned an incredulous stare on her, which she ignored.

“I’ve just the man, my Lady,” Arivani said avidly. “Montrois used to do union-breaking work in Chevantre. That’s why he’s here, the local Vernisites set the Glassian Theives’ Guild after him and he had to leave the country. I’ve not had him train any of the other troops, my Lady, but he’s pointed out a few he thinks have the knack.”

“Splendid.” Finally, a stroke of luck. “This is what you will do, Lord-Captain Arivani. Send this Montrois into that crowd, along with whatever other personnel you and he deem competent for the task, forewarned to watch for a signal from you. Summon Barnes from the Manor and instruct him to be ready with whatever materials he needs to divine hostile intent; bring him here and have him stand by. Also, bring out as many medics from the House Guard as you can assemble, and place Barnes among them. Gather my lightcap artists and place them here and on other nearby rooftops, wherever they can get the best view of the action down there. Understood so far?”

“Yes, my Lady.”

“When all this is prepared, then you will give the signal to your men below, and get that crowd to try storming the gates. At the very least, have them attempt to attack the police forces in place and cause some property damage nearby. I want an abundant selection of lightcaps of these violent criminals in action ready for tomorrow’s papers, to discredit any further attempt at this utter nonsense. My people among the writing staffs will handle the rest. Give the cappers time to get enough shots before you intervene, and then put down the mob. No energy weapons or blades, make a show of restraint, but the more minor injuries inflicted, the better.”

He grinned wolfishly. “As you command, Lady Madouri.”

“And then,” she continued, turning to meet and hold his gaze, “take them to the medics. Understand? No jails, except in the case of any individuals who make it truly unavoidable. Use the chaos to separate your plants out from the crowd and treat everyone for injuries, then let them go—but not til Barnes has had the opportunity to scan everyone. He is to do so discreetly, passing it off as medical diagnosis. If he manages to identify any of the agitators, they are also to be released, as soon as he’s confident he can track them. When this is all done, I want a spectacle to be made of my restraint and mercy in the face of reprehensible violence by despicable ne’er-do-wells. Are my orders clear?”

“Explicitly, my Lady!” he promised, saluting.

“There is likely to be significant collateral damage, my Lady,” Yancey said diffidently, “and substantial risk to the factory and its personnel. Should we warn the Falconers?”

Ravana shook her head. “I know Geoffrey’s uses; they are many and I respect him for them, but they do not include subtlety. They can’t be brought into the loop.”

“The Falconers have been the victims in all this from the very beginning,” Veilwin pointed out with an edge to her voice.

“It is often said,” Ravana observed, “that to make an omelet one must break a few eggs. To rule is to make an endless succession of omelets while standing in the very henhouse. Explaining the process to the chickens would be not only pointless, but cruel. We will continue on our way, Veilwin. This day’s work is likely to bring the Throne’s attention, and I want numerous witnesses able to attest that I was on the other side of the province while it all happened. That means all of this will rest upon you, Lord-Captain Arivani. Hew closely to my instructions, improvising only what you must, and remember my ultimate goal.”

He saluted again, his eyes fervent. “I will not fail you, Lady Madouri.”

Ravana smiled and reached out to touch his arm, which undoubtedly made his entire week. “That is why entrust you with your position, Lord-Captain.”

That, and on the day when he did fail her, it shouldn’t be too hard to replace him.

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16 – 26

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“I was going to say, I can point out the location on a map,” Trissiny commented, her breath misting on the air as she peered around at the snow-covered mountainside and the old temple complex just up ahead, “but I see you already know exactly where the First Legion is headquartered, for some reason.”

“I’m not just a pretty face, Trissiny,” Zanzayed said primly, adjusting the collar of his heavily embroidered robe.

“The Conclave has been careful to keep abreast of world events,” Ampophrenon added, inclining his head respectfully toward her. “It was formed in large part to overcome the broad tendency of our kind to fail at so doing, General. I apologize if this seems intrusive; we saw no indication that the First Legion’s headquarters were meant to be a secret.”

“It isn’t, don’t worry. I was just surprised,” she assured him. “I see you even picked us a prime landing spot! Far enough out to give them forewarning without making for an inconvenient winter hike. Very deft, Zanzayed, almost as precise as Professor Tellwyrn’s.”

Almost,” he huffed. “You see how she talks to me! Me, her own some-number-removed cousin, whom she has met exactly twice! No respect, this new generation.”

“Indeed,” Ampophrenon agreed mildly while they strode forward toward the complex, “I am impressed by how quickly she has picked up the art of handling you, Zanzayed. I have had the honor of working with many Hands of Avei, and hold them in the highest esteem, but it must be said that most have not been so…socially adroit.”

“Now, that’s something I don’t often get called,” Trissiny remarked.

The headquarters Rouvad had assigned to Locke and her upstart Legion was an old temple complex high in the weathered mountains of Viridill, which had been mostly abandoned due to sheer inconvenience, even among the various Avenist facilities perched in the highlands, like the Abbey itself. The sole access to this remote spot was a single steep, winding flight of weathered stone steps carved right into the mountains which made large-scale supply deliveries all but impossible, and would have been absolutely suicidal to climb currently, while covered with ice.

It was an impressive complex, built across four small peaks with deep ravines between them and connected by stone bridges, two of which had fallen at some point. Currently, the First Legion HQ looked somewhat eclectic, having clearly been quickly renovated; ancient granite temples had been hastily (but apparently carefully) repaired with patched walls of wood, brick, and metal, and the two broken bridges were spanned by similar constructions. All of the paths were cleared of snow, and there were even greenhouses and a number of smaller outbuildings of uncertain purpose appended to the existing structures, one of which was topped by an exhaust antenna along which occasional crackles of electricity arced.

Zanzayed had set them down on a cleared-off, round stone patio at the head of the treacherous stairs, and separated from the temple campus proper by an arched stone bridge which, to judge by its weathered state, was part of the original construction but still evidently sound. Beyond it was a half-ruined structure which had been a gatehouse once before the archway collapsed and was later cleared out of the path; of the original gate, there remained no trace. The half of the building which still possessed a roof now also had an improvised metal stovepipe emerging from an upper arrow loop and puffing out wood smoke. As the three of them crested the arch of the bridge, the gatehouse door opened and a very small figure emerged.

“Zounds,” the gnome exclaimed, waving eagerly. “General Avelea, what an honor! Please, come on in, make yourselves at home. And you brought dragons! It’s Lord Ampophrenon and Lord…Zanzayed, aye?”

“Our reputation precedes us,” Zanzayed preened.

“Gnomes are always well-educated,” Ampophrenon replied.

“Thank you,” Trissiny answered the gate guard, “Mr…?”

“I’m Bonkers, ma’am,” he said, grinning. “It’s me moniker, not me condition, never fear.”

“Nice to meet you,” Trissiny said with the merest hesitation, while Zanzayed snickered outright and Ampophrenon gave him a disapproving look. “I need to speak with Captain Locke immediately, if you would conduct us to her.”

“Ah…” He winced, awkwardly rubbing the back of his neck. “I’m not to leave me post, ma’am, no disrespect intended. Thing is, I’m alone on watch just now, as me partner already went to fetch the captain soon as you popped in. Reckoned you’d wanna talk with ‘er, an’ the other way ‘round, as well.”

“Good thinking, then,” she said, nodding. “Ah, and speak of the Dark Lady. That was quick.”

The door of the nearest temple structure, one occupying the same peak as the gatehouse, had opened while Bonkers was speaking, and three figures approached them rapidly, the first two gliding rapidly over the frosty stone paths (being elves) while the third picked her way more carefully along behind.

“I’m willing to bet ‘Dark Lady’ isn’t even the worst thing you’ve called me, though not usually to my face,” Principia called as she trotted up. “Trissiny, welcome! And Lord Ampophrenon, what an unexpected honor. What’d you bring him for?” she added, pointing accusingly at Zanzayed.

“Seriously?” he exclaimed. “I’ll have you know I am literally the only member of this party who has contributed materially to it so far!”

“He’s right, Locke,” Trissiny agreed, “and just because he’s family does not mean you get to insult visiting Conclave delegates while in uniform. Keep a civil tongue in that head.”

“Oh, so it’s only okay when you do it,” Zanzayed huffed at her.

She winked, unrepentant. “That is how rank works, yes.”

“You really belong in this family,” he informed her.

“Hey, now,” Trissiny exclaimed, “I don’t think that kind of language is called for.”

“Below the belt, Zanza,” Principia added reproachfully. “People do have feelings, you know.”

Zanzayed threw his arms up in the air and turned away in a dramatic sulk.

At Principia’s side, Nandi Shahai cleared her throat pointedly. “Perhaps we could conduct our visitors indoors and provide some refreshments?”

“Actually,” Trissiny said more seriously, “it’s good that you two came out in particular. I need to speak with both of you alone. But Lord Ampophrenon has expressed an interest in what you’re doing out here, and I for one would be very glad to hear his thoughts about the Legion. If our guests could have a tour of the facilities…?”

“Perfect!” Principia said brightly. “Iraa, you know the sights. Please show our guests around, and make sure you swing by the mess hall and fix Zanza up with some bacon.”

“Uhhh… I mean, sure, Captain,” the third woman with them replied, clearly nonplussed. Though she had the broad shoulders (and twice-broken nose) that tended to come from Legion service, her manner of addressing her commanding officer contradicted that impression.

“I don’t suppose that bacon comes wrapped around shrimp?” Zanzayed asked with almost childlike hope.

“Zanzayed, this is a military facility hundreds of miles inland,” Principia said patiently. “Why would we have shrimp?”

“Well, why have you got bacon, then? How ‘bout that, huh?”

“We are grateful to be accommodated, Captain Locke,” Ampophrenon interjected courteously. “We would not dream of asking any special treatment.”

“You’ll be in good hands,” Principia promised him. “Sister Shay Iraa here knows the place inside and out, and is delightfully plain-spoken, I think you’ll find.”

“Stop, I’m gonna blush,” Iraa replied, deadpan. “Well, then! If you’ll come this way, uh…my lords? Let’s get you started at the bunker, grab something to nosh.”

“Now you’re talking my language!” Zanzayed said, following the priestess up the path toward the next bridge.”

“I am surprised you have room in a place like this to train in adventurer activities,” Ampophrenon added as the three headed off.

“Oh, this is just the topside, there’s old tunnel networks to all kinds of interesting places. We got caves, a nice clearing behind that peak over there, a patch of pine forest, the ravine floor under us… Most of ‘em show signs of being used for military training before we moved in.”

Trissiny turned back to the two elves as Iraa and the dragons vanished over the bridge’s arch. “So! I guess congratulations are in order, Captain Locke. You must be the most rapidly-promoted officer in centuries.”

“Not even in the top fifty, according to Nandi here,” Principia replied cheerfully. “Though apparently I am something of a record for an officer in peacetime.”

“War tends to create career opportunities in the most unfortunate way,” Shahai agreed solemnly. “The command post is over here, General.”

“So, I have to ask,” Trissiny added in a lower tone as they moved off, glancing over her shoulder. The gatehouse guard had already discreetly retreated to his post, shutting the door behind him against the winter chill. “Bonkers?”

“We have everyone vetted by our top fae and divine casters for hostile intentions,” Principia assured her. “Aside from that… These are adventurers, not soldiers, and a good few of ‘em are here at least partly because of the amnesty. I’ve made it policy not to pry into anything we don’t explicitly need to know.” She grinned at Trissiny. “This ain’t your grandma’s army, General.”


“Well, no, I’m clearly not happy about it,” Principia said, one short but thorough explanation later when the three of them were ensconced in her office with its late-model arcane heater. “I went to a lot of trouble to get Nandi into my squad in the first place, and she’s been invaluable in keeping this place shipshape, what with all the large personalities we’ve got here. But I’m also not an idiot, and… It’s the right call, Trissiny. I saw firsthand how she performed as Bishop, and it’s exactly the approach this situation needs. You are definitely gonna be missed around here,” she added directly to Shahai, “but I can clearly see the sense in it. The Sisterhood right now has more need of you there.”

“I wouldn’t presume to proclaim myself the best woman for any task,” Shahai said almost diffidently, “but given your general pattern of interactions with the High Commander, General, I consider the fact that you are both in agreement on this to be an adequate endorsement.”

“Also, you know,” Trissiny said dryly, “orders.”

“Of course,” Shahai replied with a wry smile. “I will go wherever Avei requires me, no questions asked. Your pardon; after five centuries of service I’m afraid I’ve become prone to speaking my mind.”

“Well, Rouvad and Locke both think you’re worth it, and I’m inclined to agree.”

“So, about the other thing,” Principia said more seriously, getting up from her seat and crossing to open the door, “I believe I know just the right backup for you. Hey, ELWICK!” she bellowed down the hall outside. “Get in here!”

“I had an uncomfortable realization yesterday when dealing with the Purists,” Trissiny admitted while Principia returned to her chair. “With you and the squad no longer in the Temple, I have no personal connections there, aside from Rouvad herself. Being able to pull rank is nice, but it’s also useful to have access to a view from lower on the chain of command. Fortunately, I managed to strike up an acquaintance with Azalea Hsing that I think will prove positive.”

“Oh, that’s an excellent choice,” Shahai agreed, nodding. “Sister Azalea is clever and far-sighted, and good at gathering Legionaries and novice Sisters under her wing.”

Casey Elwick appeared in the doorway, saluting. “You squawked, Capt— General Avelea!”

“Come in, Sergeant Elwick, and shut the door,” Principia ordered. “Congratulations are in order. I’m giving you field command of the First Legion’s first-ever active deployment. You’ll be operating directly under General Avelea, but mostly on your own, like we’ve trained.”

“Thank you,” Casey all but squeaked, then swallowed and controlled her voice. “I will not let you down, ma’am! What’s the mission?”

“The General will brief you fully when you’ve assembled your team,” Principia said, nodding at Trissiny before the latter could answer. “The short version: urban counterintelligence. Go gather up, let’s see… McGraw, Jenkins, Iraa, and Bandi Avelea.”

“Sister Shay is still escorting our other guests around the campus,” Nandi reminded her.

“Right, so find her last. You’ll be moving out with the General and Shahai in one hour, Sergeant, and you’ll need time to get everyone briefed before departure. Let’s make it sharp, the General’s time is valuable.”

“Yes, ma’am!” Casey barked, saluting again. “I’m on it!”

“Dismissed,” Principia said, and the young sergeant rushed out so rapidly she almost forgot to shut the door behind herself.

“I have to admit,” said Trissiny, “I’m a little surprised at how well this place is shaping up. It’s a strangely appropriate outgrowth of your little oddball squad. Honestly, I wouldn’t have been surprised if it had all turned to disaster. No offense.”

“None of us would’ve been surprised,” Principia said ruefully. “But the real test is coming; apparently you’ll get to see it firsthand. Oh, but speaking of!” She suddenly straightened up in her chair, grinning. “My squad had a secondary mission in Tiraas that I’ve quietly continued out here. While everybody’s getting rounded up and packed, General, you wanna see something cool?”


“A rifle?” Trissiny asked, turning the blocky device over in her hands. “What does that mean?”

“Refers to the rifled barrel,” Billie Fallowstone replied from the other end of her underground workshop, where she was affixing a strong shielding charm to a training dummy. “The long hollow bit there, it’s got spiraling grooves on the inside, to stabilize the projectile in flight. Can’t take credit for the notion, it was Locke’s idea!”

“I love taking credit,” Principia added, “but truth be told, that one was actually Rouvad’s.”

“Aye, ye get surprisin’ bursts of insight from folks with no actual engineerin’ skill,” Billie agreed with an irrepressible grin, trundling back over toward them. “Some distance from the problem helps, I guess. Let’s see it, then, General.”

Trissiny carefully handed the weapon back to her and watched as the gnome briskly opened a hinged panel in the top of its squared midsection and slotted in a tapered metal object she picked up from a nearby table, then shut and latched it again.

“Here now, what’s that?” Principia demanded, peering down at the procedure. “What happened to the metal balls? I thought we agreed shaped projectiles were too farfetched—”

“You agreed that,” Billie said scornfully, “an’ you were right, insofar as yer eyes were too big fer yer belly, as usual. All that fancy talk o’ spiral-shaped projectiles an’ aerodynamic fins was pie in th’sky, but a cylinder with a cone on one end fits neatly in the barrel and is stupid easy to cast. I can whip up a mold me damn self usin’ scrap I’ve got layin’ around, an’ any foundry can crank out thousands of ‘em by the hour if we go inta production. The shaped bullets’re a good seventy percent more accurate than those fool balls the dwarves were usin’. Here, General, care ta do the honors?”

“Sure,” Trissiny said warily, accepting the loaded weapon back. “The ammunition goes in that top compartment, there? Seems awfully inconvenient; you can’t have much rate of fire that way.”

“Aye, yer dead right. That li’l girl ain’t a production model, I’m still prototypin’ various features. I got me a much more efficient magazine design in progress over there.” She waved at a miscellaneous pile of tools and scraps on her workbench which might have been anything at all, as far as Trissiny could tell. “Now, use the rune there to prime it.”

Trissiny touched the rune, and the arcane device obligingly hummed to life. A thin slot revealing the power crystal lit up with a blue glow on one side, just behind the ammunition compartment.

“Now, be sure ta brace the big ‘eavy pommel against yer shoulder, good an’ solid,” Billie said seriously. “There’s a good reason I made it that way. First model I tried was built along the standard battlestaff model, with the butt tucked under yer arm. An’ that’s the story o’ how I discovered this thing’s got about ten times the recoil of a lightnin’ staff. Damn well shot outta my grip across the room backwards.”

“Duly noted,” Trissiny said, carefully holding it as directed. She had fired battlestaves, of course, but not often, and the different shape of the rifle made it a somewhat awkward grip, but it seemed to fit well enough. Moving carefully, she took aim at the target dummy, which now stood behind the blue glow of a military-grade shielding charm. “Ready?”

“Whenever you are,” Principia said with an anticipatory grin.

Squeezing the clicker produced a flash of blue light from the power crystal’s slot and also from the tip of the barrel, accompanied by a thunderclap almost exactly like the discharge of a battlestaff, which was nigh-deafening in an enclosed space. The rifle did indeed try to jerk right out of her grasp; Trissiny found herself nearly aiming at the ceiling a second later when it was back under control, the end of its long muzzle smoking faintly.

There was now a gaping hole in the center of the dummy’s body. The shielding charm, rated to stand up to sustained staff fire before failing, had been snuffed out like it was never there.

“Nice shot!” Billie crowed. “Yer a natural! Aye, the toys Locke was tinkerin’ with used an explosive charge like the dwarven original, which seemed t’me needlessly cumbersome an’ askin’ fer trouble. An arcane acceleration charm’s way too power-intensive, but you can cobble up a real efficient contained explosion that uses less power per crystal than the standard staff shot, an works beautifully ta fire th’projectile. Also won’t blow yer arm off if ye light up a cigarette.”

“Why didn’t the dwarves refine it this much?” Trissiny asked, still frowning at the slain target dummy with the smoking rifle in her clenched hands. “You’ve only been at this a year or so, and they’re rather famous for engineering.”

“There are a million possible answers to that, and we don’t know enough to guess which might be true,” said Principia. “Such things usually come down to social or economic factors rather than the technology itself. What do you think of it so far?”

“Shield-breaking utility aside,” Trissiny said softly, “this thing would do terrible damage to a living body. Different damage than a lightning bolt, but… I’m not sure if better, or worse?”

“I’ve tested that girl’s older sisters on pumpkins an’ melons,” Billie said seriously. “Yer right, it is not pretty. Makes a fair neat little hole goin’ in an’ a honkin’ big terrible one comin’ out the back. Ye hit somebody in the right spot with one o’ these an’ I reckon the best healers would be stymied.”

“There’s also the matter of escalation,” Principia added. “I talked about this with Rouvad. The first battle in which these weapons are used will be an absolute rout, but immediately after that tactics and devices to counter them will begin to be deployed. The projectile weapon itself is enough of a jump forward that there’s no telling how far that arms race will run before it settles back into any kind of equilibrium. I suspect the Svennish are aware of the same thing. The base concept is pretty clearly aimed at negating the Tiraan Empire’s military capabilities, but it can’t be a coincidence that we took the original from an intelligence agent while their soldiers have never been seen with such weapons.”

“It’s a big improvement over battlestaves in range, accuracy, an’ stoppin’ power,” said Billie, “but can’t match ‘em for rate o’ fire or economy. An’ the ammunition situation is actually a step back from arrows. Metal projectiles are smaller, but about as ‘eavy an’ more expensive to make.”

“Well,” Principia snipped, “maybe if you used the original spherical ones—”

“Blow it out yer arse, Captain. This ‘ere’s my workshop, an’ I’ll not be party to the deployment of inferior technology!”

“I need to think about this,” Trissiny stated abruptly, bending to hand the weapon back to Billie with great care. “Don’t get me wrong, ladies: you’ve done fine work here. This is extremely impressive. But I can’t help having the sinking feeling you’re about to unleash something horrific on the world.”

“Aye,” Billie said solemnly as she accepted the rifle into her arms, “we’re not blind ta that, General.”

“What it comes down to,” Principia added, “is that we didn’t invent this technology; we’re just refining it. The knowledge was out there, and bound to be used sooner than later. So the issue becomes one of whether it’s going to be our people who get ravaged by its first deployment, or someone else’s. That is a damn ugly choice to make, Trissiny, but I don’t see how we could make a different one.”

“You’re right about that,” Trissiny murmured. “What’ve you come up with in terms of countering this, Billie?”

“So far?” the gnome hedged, wincing. “Me best notion is armor. Made o’ materials which do not, at this time, exist. Got meself a couple ideas fer alchemical treatment o’ wood an’ ceramic, but that’s not me field of specialty. An’ I’ve not even tried scalin’ the tech up to a cannon-sized siege engine. I’ve frankly no idea what ye even could do against that.”

Trissiny inhaled deeply and then blew the air out in a huff. “All right. Thank you for bringing me up to speed on this; I very much fear it’s going to be relevant far too soon. For now, I think we’ve still got a little time before I need to brief Elwick’s team and have Zanzayed bring everybody back to Tiraas. Changing the subject, Locke, where is Khadizroth?”

“In his own chamber, pretty far underground,” Principia answered. “You need to talk with him, too?”

“I was actually hoping to,” Trissiny said thoughtfully, “but that was before Ampophrenon invited himself along for this visit. I’m not sure we’re ready for that confrontation to unfold.”

“Yikes. No kidding,” Principia cringed. “But you needn’t worry; Khadizroth knew it the second two dragons arrived on our doorstep and warned me even before Iraa came to do likewise. Then he went to hide himself away.”

“Ah, good,” Trissiny said fervently. “Damage controlled, then. Still, it seems a waste; I was taking advantage of a rare opportunity to make sure it was Zanzayed he met with first, and under my supervision. We can’t keep him away from the Conclave forever, but I’d rather not start with its cannier members.”

“Do not underestimate Zanzayed,” Principia warned her. “I have twice seen him directly cooperating with Imperial Intelligence, and Quentin Vex does not associate with fools. Zanzayed is thousands of years old and has survived brawls with Arachne and Kuriwa. He wouldn’t be the first person to downplay his own intelligence for strategic advantage.”

“Aye,” Billie agreed, grinning. “You actually study under Admestus Rafe, right? Same principle applies.”

“Thanks for the warning,” Trissiny said with a pensive frown. “Well, then. I guess I have no other pressing business here. Let’s go get everybody caught up and then move out. Not that I’m not enjoying the visit, Locke, but the real trouble’s unspooling in Tiraas as we speak, and I don’t like leaving it out from under my eyes any longer than necessary.”

“There’s always trouble out from under your eyes, Trissiny,” Principia said. “You can’t plan for everything. The best you can do is stay flexible and learn to think fast and react smart.”

Trissiny sighed softly. “Yeah, I’ve been getting that impression. I just hope I can learn fast enough.”

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16 – 24

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Finding herself already in the Embassy District, Trissiny opted to summon Arjen and ride the relatively short distance to the compound held by the Conclave of the Winds. This neighborhood, accustomed as it was to the presence of august personages from the world over, afforded her relative freedom from the gawking and pointing she usually got in public while wearing the silver armor that enabled her to walk into embassies and get unscheduled meetings with ranking personnel; even the police officer of whom she’d asked directions had been polite but not fawning, or even visibly impressed. There were also a good number of foreigners about, for obvious reasons, and so she was the subject of some whispering, but Trissiny could live with that. She was altogether more bothered by the cold. Having left the Svennish embassy around midmorning and found the day unexpectedly sunny for Tiraas, she had to dourly admit that this was probably as warm as it was going to get all day.

Embassies were at least easy to identify, even for one unfamiliar with the neighborhood, as they obligingly bedecked themselves in flags. The Conclave’s multicolored hexagon encircled by a wing-like glyph on a white field was displayed as prominently as any, enabling her to zero in on her target as soon as she was on the right street. The dragons had set up a towering flagpole to fly their colors notably higher than any of the others in the area, which was exactly the sort of petty posturing nobody was going to call them down for. Because they were dragons.

She rode Arjen past the guards at the open gate, neither of whom attempted to stop her, dismounting midway up the path to the palatial embassy proper and leaving him with a pat on his velvety nose to return to the divine plane as always. Again, she was not impeded—a paladin’s uniform opened many doors—and in fact, the two guards bracketing the embassy’s door came to attention, one opening the door for her.

“Thank you,” Trissiny said politely.

“Ma’am,” the guard replied in a crisp tone.

She slowed, indulging her martial upbringing in casting a critical eye over the soldiers—which, to judge by their discipline, they were, rather than civil guards. The Conclave kept its troops in metal armor, lined with white fur, but in addition to sabers they carried battlestaves and had wands holstered. They were also, every one she’d seen so far, women, and notably more attractive than soldiers needed to be.

Dragons.

Trissiny repressed her instinctive antipathy. There was no suggestion any of these women were here against their will, which made it none of her business.

Inside, the sight of the embassy’s great hall caused her to stop and spend a heartbeat just taking in the view.

Apparently the Conclave had been hastily granted this compound by the Empire on the day of their very sudden appearance at the capital, and moved into the then-empty palace left behind when the Syrrinski delegation had relocated themselves to a smaller structure at a more trafficked intersection. However make-do the initial habitation had been, the Conclave had since had ample time to make the embassy their own.

They’d stripped the walls to reveal bare stone, covered the windows with heavy drapes, replaced what had probably been a marble floor with gray flagstones, knocked out the fluted columns which would’ve matched the embassy’s exterior to install heavy square pillars of fieldstone, and disabled all the fairy lamps. All the illumination now came from a selection of braziers and standing lamps, all holding fire rather than magical light, and at least some clearly augmented with smoky incense. The relative dimness served to accentuate the furnishings, which were a mismatched collection of carved luxury woods, pricey fabrics, gilt and silvered limbs, and intricate carpets. Everything was visibly expensive, most of it clearly antique, and absolutely nothing matched.

Evidently the draconic aesthetic was tasteless opulence against a starkly rustic backdrop.

No dragons were immediately in evidence, though there were more humans about than Trissiny had expected, including a servant tending to braziers and several individuals crossing the great hall at a businesslike gait with stacks of paperwork in hand. More soldiers were stationed about, rigidly at attention with a discipline she could not fault; all were female, and all remarkably pretty of face.

Where were they getting these women? How did they recruit them? The Sisterhood kept tabs on the Huntsmen’s eternal campaign to entice women into their ranks; surely someone would have noticed had dragons been doing the same. Trissiny had heard nothing to that effect, however.

“General Avelea! Welcome!”

From the large desk set up across from the entrance now approached a tall half-elven man, smiling broadly. Trissiny noted that the dragons also had classical sensibilities when it came to garbing their servants; in addition to the old-fashioned armor on the guards, most of the other personnel in the room wore sweeping robes, like wizards and clerics in old adventuring parties were often depicted. This fellow, though, was actually in a doublet and breeches, which was somehow even more anachronistic, but he had the lean frame to pull it off.

“Good morning,” she said. “I apologize for intruding on you without warning…”

“Not at all, not at all,” the steward hastily reassured her. “I can only imagine how unforgiving a paladin’s schedule must be. It is an honor to have you in our embassy, General! What can the Conclave of the Winds do for you?”

“Actually,” she said mentally preparing herself for an argument, “I need to speak with Zanzayed the Blue.”

“Of course, General,” he said, to her surprise. Snapping his fingers, he turned to point at another young man still waiting behind the desk. “Ivan, notify Lord Zanzayed he has a visitor. If you would, General Avelea,” he said, turning back to her with a bow while the youth dashed off toward one of the room’s curving staircases, “please make yourself comfortable here. I will have refreshments brought.”

“Oh, that’s not necessary,” she said hastily. “I don’t mean to take up any more of your time than I must.”

“Please, General, the hospitality of the Conclave couldn’t bear to have you mistreated under our roof. At least something to ward off the chill of the day?”

He snapped his fingers again, beckoning, and a new figure approached from behind the desk—in fact, from a door behind it obscured by a curtain, hence why she had not noticed them before. This was a woman—young, as pretty as any of the guards, and considerably more underdressed, to the point the tray of steaming mugs she carried seemed like an imminent threat to her expansive cleavage. She glided forward with surprising grace considering her burden and executed a deep curtsy, smiling up through her thick lashes in an openly flirtatious manner.

Apparently they didn’t entertain many Avenists here.

Trissiny was spared having to come up with a polite response to this by the sharp sound of a battlestaff being thunked twice against the stone floor, followed by the voice of one of the soldiers ringing through the great hall.

“Lord Ampophrenon the Gold!”

Instantly every human in the room knelt and lowered their heads, including the serving girl, still holding up her tray, leaving Trissiny standing alone.

“Please, rise,” pleaded a deep baritone from above, and she turned to spot the tall humanoid form of the dragon in his famous golden armor descending the stairs, just in time to catch his embarrassed-looking wave as he urged everyone back to their feet.

Interesting. Then did the other dragons insist on this obeisance that Ampophrenon did not care for, or perhaps did he just like to put on a show of modesty while also soaking up the reverence? The latter was a cynical thought, but consistent with the reputation of dragons. Trissiny was deliberately trying to get in the habit of teasing out social and political currents like this, though so far the effort had mostly just revealed how little frame of reference she had for it.

Ampophrenon’s featureless golden eyes had settled right on her, and he descended the stairs in a rapid glide, quickly crossing the floor in a few long strides. “General Avelea, welcome to our embassy. It is an honor to finally meet you!”

“Likewise, Lord Ampophrenon,” she answered, bowing. To her surprise, he bowed back as soon as he was close enough, one casual gesture sending both the steward and the waitress backing away from them.

“I feel I still owe you an apology for my absence at Ninkabi. It is shameful that none of our Conclave learned of the attack in time to assist in the defense—for me, in particular.”

“As suddenly as it happened, I hardly think anyone who wasn’t there can be blamed,” she demurred. “The paladins only made it in time because Xyraadi came to find us.”

“Ah, yes, the Sisterhood’s old khelminash ally,” the dragon said, his expression growing intent. “These times grow more interesting with each passing day. I am given to understand that you have struck up a friendship with none other than Vadrieny the Ravager?”

Ah, yes; this particular dragon had a history with her, didn’t he?

“I have,” Trissiny stated, holding his gaze firmly. “And she is as good a friend as any I’ve ever had. I’m not sure how much you’re aware of Vadrieny’s situation, Lord Ampophrenon, but having one’s entire history and identity erased changes a person. She has little resemblance to the Vadrieny of history. I suspect you would scarcely recognize her.”

“That is a relief to hear,” he said, nodding. “Especially after this morning.” Trissiny blinked in surprise; Teal and therefore Vadrieny had been with her all morning, until they’d dropped her off outside the Svennish embassy less than an hour ago. What could they have possibly done? Fortunately Ampophrenon continued. “The papers are full of the account of her terrorizing a city street yesterday, here in Tiraas.”

“Huh,” Trissiny grunted, frowning in annoyance. “Well, I haven’t seen the papers, but I personally helped clean up the aftermath of that. A pair of thieves attempted to abduct her pet dog. There was some incidental property damage, for which the Falconers are of course being financially responsible, but Vadrieny stopped the criminals. Without killing them, which to be quite frank was more restrained than I might have been.”

“I’m very pleased to learn that,” the dragon said with a smile, “and most especially to have a firsthand account. A drawback of the modern proliferation of information is that relatively little of it seems accurate. The picture painted by the newspapers has been…rather more dramatic.”

“Oh?”

“For heaven’s sake, Puff, can’t you get your own visitors?”

Belatedly, the sergeant at arms thunked her staff twice on the floor. “Lord Zanzayed the Blue!”

“Yes, yes, everybody calm down. As you were,” Zanzayed said impatiently, causing the various dragonsworn in the room to abort their descents, only a few of them having made it to a full kneel, and straighten back up. He crossed the room from the staircase at a rapid glide that caused his fancifully embroidered robes to fan behind him like the train of a peacock, grinning broadly and spreading his hands in welcome. “Trissiny! What a delight to see you again! You look much better as a blonde. What brings you to my humble abode?”

“Humble?” she asked, raising her eyebrows. “Actually, never mind that. Hello again, Zanzayed, I’m sorry I haven’t found time to visit before. The truth is, I need to ask you for a favor.”

“Yep, this is what it’s like to have family,” Zanzayed complained to Ampophrenon. “You never see them unless they want something.”

“Right,” Trissiny retorted, “so should I assume that since you haven’t visited me either, it’s only because I have nothing you want?”

The blue dragon burst out laughing. “Now that’s the way to do it! That’s perfect, Triss, you’ve got your mother’s wit, plus the knack for not being such a bitch about it. I can see the benefit of Arachne’s training! All right, all right, I do like to josh but seriously, I don’t mind at all doing you a solid. Whatcha need?”

“It’s a pretty prosaic thing to ask of a dragon, sorry,” she apologized, “but I need to get to the First Legion headquarters in northern Viridill, gather up some people, and get back here to Tiraas, as quickly as it can be arranged. Only teleportation will be fast enough to suffice.”

“Wow, you weren’t kidding,” he said, unimpressed. “I do respect the sheer gumption, asking a dragon to be your personal taxi service.”

“Well, if you’re busy, I certainly understand,” Trissiny said with a deliberately false smile. “I was in the neighborhood, is all. I can head down to the Wizards’ Guild and spend the Sisterhood’s credit—”

“Now, now, I didn’t say no, did I?” he interjected.

“It certainly wouldn’t be the least dignified thing you’ve done lately,” Ampophrenon agreed. “In fact, General Avelea, if you intend to visit your adventurer legion, I wonder if I might prevail upon you to come along? I’m certain Zanzayed doesn’t mind doing such a minor favor, after all,” he added pointedly to the blue. “It’s not as if he has anything more important to do.”

“You should stop helping before I’m forced to refuse on principle,” Zanzayed retorted. “Long as this one restrains his urge to henpeck, Trissiny, sure, I’d be glad to give you a lift. I did the same for Arachne not long ago, and at least you’re polite.”

Trissiny found herself hesitating, glancing rapidly between them. Ampophrenon’s presence had not been part of her plan. Zanzayed’s insistence on coming along, despite his expected complaining, had borne out her theory: the Conclave would very much like to have a look at the First Legion, or specifically, one individual in it. More than a few commentators had suggested it was formed at least partly due to the actions of Khadizroth the Green, in whom they remained deeply interested. Hence her intention to make Zanzayed the first point of contact between them, under her own supervision; he was noted to be the least versed in the art of political maneuvering, mostly because he wasn’t known to care about much of anything beyond his own immediate interests.

Ampophrenon the Gold was a different matter entirely.

But could she refuse his presence without overplaying her hand? And would that even create a problem if she did? Moments like this made Trissiny keenly conscious of just how much she still had to learn about this kind of maneuvering. And it had all been going so well before Ampophrenon involved himself…

“Actually,” she said slowly, “if you’re interested in seeing it, Lord Ampophrenon, I’d be glad of your presence. Captain Locke is trying to resuscitate a dead tradition; I’d love to hear the observations of one who was an expert in adventurer strategy when it was an active force.”

“The honor would be mine, General,” the gold dragon assured her with a courtly bow. “I shall be only too glad to be of service, in light of my failure to do so at the Battle of Ninkabi. I’m sure Zanzayed doesn’t mind one extra passenger.”

“Well, you could stand to lose a few pounds, but we’ll make do,” Zanzayed snipped, holding his arms wide and calling up a rising sparkle of visible arcane magic that Trissiny knew for a fact was entirely unnecessary for a wizard of his skill. He’d even modulated the characteristically unpleasant buzz of the arcane to a three-tone harmony. “Stand clear, everyone!”

Well, she reflected as the three of them disappeared in a gratuitous flash, you couldn’t win them all.


“It’s just such an absolute delight to see you again, Gabriel!” Lady Gwenfaer nattered on. “Let me get you something. Tea? I have some lovely chocolates from Glassiere, I’ve just been waiting for someone to come along worth sharing them with. Oh, please, do make yourself comfortable! Sit anywhere you like. And get out of that heavy coat! I do so want you to feel relaxed here.”

He felt anything but relaxed here, and the fact that she both knew it and knew exactly why only fed his tension. Gabriel deliberately kept his posture calmly and as un-tensed as he could make it, cultivating a mask of aloofness which did not even try to suppress the suspicion in his eyes. Obviously, he did not take off his coat.

As with the previous time she had entertained him, Gwenfaer met him in her private chambers, an inner sanctum deep inside the underground temple complex beneath Imperial Square. It was actually ironic and a fine example of the cult’s prized duality; the innermost chambers were obviously sacred spaces, arranged for prayer and religious ceremonies, and then past the final door was this cozy little apartment, in which the mortal leader of the Vidian faith was now puttering about a small kitchen, making tea.

Also as before, she herself was wearing a robe that was clearly designed to resemble a disheveled housecoat, despite the immaculate condition of its silken skirt and wide sleeves. It revealed an excessive amount of pale cleavage and in fact seemed perpetually on the verge of sliding off her shoulders, and yet remained firmly fixed in place, exactly where she wanted it. Gabriel himself was a bit more worldly now than on their previous encounter, enough at least to respect the artifice that went into such a garment. As well as the way her blonde hair evoked the tousled aspect of just having slid out of bed, and yet was glossy and flowed down her back like the carved mane of a marble sculpture. And while he still knew very little about cosmetics, he knew that his own failure to spot them didn’t mean they weren’t there—and that nobody just woke up with their lips or eyelids colored that way.

While the tea kettle was heating, she came bustling back carrying a plate on which fancy-looking chocolates were artfully arranged, and Gabriel did not miss the unnatural way she held it—close to waist level, the better to accentuate her bust, in a posture absolutely no one used for transporting food.

“Please, Gabriel, do sit down,” Gwenfaer chided gently. “Come, I think you’ll enjoy these.”

“I hear you’ve been making trouble for the Archpope,” he said, not moving to do any of what she suggested. “To the point he’s called poor Bishop Raskin down on the carpet a few times. From what people tell me, it’s starting to seem like you’ve set the Brethren to impeding Church activities just for the hell of it. Or maybe just to see how much you can get away with?”

She sighed with almost childlike peevishness, making a little pout which belonged on someone half her age at the absolute most. It was downright creepy how well the woman pulled it off. Shaking her head, Gwenfaer bent to set the plate of chocolates on the low table between her couches, deliberately positioning herself so that the motion gave Gabriel a view straight down to her waist.

He immediately averted his eyes, then clenched them slightly in annoyance. A better action would have been to look, without allowing his expression to be altered in the slightest. All this flirting was blatantly a power play, not anything sincerely romantic, and he’d just ceded her at least a measure of that power. It wasn’t as if he needed a reminder that he was way out of his depth, trying to play these games with this woman.

“Really, right to politics?” she asked in coquettish disappointment, straightening back up and giving no indication she was even aware her posture had had an effect on him—which, somehow, only emphasized how in control she was. “Honestly, Gabriel, it’s not that I mind, but there’s a reason civilized people try to soften up such talk with pleasant little amenities.”

“Yes, thank you for showing me the amenities, they’re magnificent as always,” he said sarcastically, and the smile of amusement she gave him at that was the first expression he’d ever seen on her face that looked genuine. “The curious thing about it is apparently you’re the reason there’s an Archpope Justinian at all. The way I heard it, when the last one retired, you were one of the leading contenders for the position until you nominated him. So, what gives? Do you back Justinian or not?”

Gwenfaer sighed and gave him an indulgent smile, looking up through her eyelashes. “Would you please relax? Whatever’s set you on the warpath, I’m sure between us we can settle on a strategy to deal with it. Come, have a seat.” She patted the spot next to herself invitingly, and with her other hand picked up a chocolate, holding it out as if she intended to feed him with her fingers.

Gabriel held her gaze for a moment, then deliberately drew the gnarled black wand from within his coat. It extended to full scythe form in his grasp and he planted the butt against the floor, the impact muffled by her thick layers of carpet.

Gwenfaer’s eyes cut to the divine weapon and then back to him, looking not the least bit perturbed. Mildly inquisitive, at most.

“I would appreciate your help with something, Lady Gwenfaer,” he stated. “Well, several things, in fact.”

“Of course, I’m—”

“To begin with, yourself. I am in a completely intractable position with regard to you. We need to resolve that before moving on to more pressing matters.”

“Why, Gabriel,” she said in wide-eyed concern, “whatever have I done to impede you?”

“That,” he said, pointing at her. “You have to be aware that I’m not here to do run-of-the-mill Vidian stuff. Vidius has told me in so many words I’m here to straighten out the cult, and clean out some of the rot. The only reason I haven’t so far is I am still working to get a sense of who’s who and what’s what, and the fact that this place is a constantly-writhing nest of snakes at the best of times does not help. I’d like nothing more than to count on your help, Lady Gwenfaer. I can’t think of anyone better positioned to direct me.”

“It goes without saying, Gabriel,” she said sweetly, making sure to gaze up through her lashes to emphasize the double meaning. “Anything I can do for you, you need only ask.”

“And that’s why it’s such a problem,” he said with open irritation, “that you keep working so hard to make yourself completely impossible to trust.”

He’d more than half expected her to make another playfully flirtatious comment in response, but instead, she carefully set the chocolate back down on the plate and folded her hands in her lap.

“Are you under the impression, Gabriel, that I’ve been…unusually disingenuous toward you?”

“In point of fact, no,” he said, drawing his eyebrows together in a quizzical expression. “I actually asked Tarvadegh. He insisted you treat everyone the same way. Also, he seemed exhausted just by the memory of being in a room with you.”

“Val, you gossipy fishwife,” she huffed, and once again, the real amusement in her tone seemed like an unaccustomed flash of genuine emotion through her constant facade. Of course, Gabriel couldn’t afford to trust that, either. “That observation is quite apt, Gabriel. The Doctrine of Masks may be something you are learning to use, but to me? It is a way not merely of acting, but of being.”

And just like that, her entire aspect changed. She leaned back against the rear of the couch, stretching both arms across it, and while that pose could have been interpreted as sexy, her expression was even and sharp, eyes fixed on him as if analyzing him like a specimen under a magnifier.

“Does this make you feel more at ease?” Gwenfaer inquired, and while her voice was no less throaty, the subtleties of her inflection were knowing and detached, nothing at all like her little-girl coyness of before.

“Yes, thank you, that’s a start.”

Gabriel finally stepped forward around the other couch and seated himself directly opposite her. Still holding his eyes, she raised one eyebrow.

“I’m not sure why. Surely, you have to be aware that I am no different, and definitely no less in control of how you perceive me.”

“Sure, but nothing was ever gonna change that.” He kept one hand on the haft of the scythe, resting its butt on the floor between the couch and table. “It would be pretty stupid on my part to let my guard down with anyone in this place, don’t you think? But at least as long as you’re not acting like a showgirl, I can at least feel like you’re taking this seriously. Trust is earned, and that takes time. Meet me halfway, and it’s only fair I give you a chance. Right?”

“You make a peculiar kind of sense,” she said with a knowing little smile. “Well then, if I have earned a measure of your tolerance, you were asking about Justinian, yes? I wonder what’s set you after him suddenly.”

“I wonder where you stand with him,” Gabriel shot back. “You as good as put him where he is, but now you seem to be trying to hamper him?”

“That’s not so contradictory as you make it sound. Yes, I played my role in making him Archpope. At the time, Gabriel, I was angling to rise through the ranks, and at a crossroads where I could have pursued the office of Archpope for myself, or the leadership of the Brethren. In that situation? My decision was the strategic one. I avoided a pitched power struggle between the other Bishops, and by positioning myself such that it seemed to my fellow Vidians the papacy had been mine to give away, I leveraged myself into…” She made a languid gesture with one hand. “Well, where you see me now.”

“I see you now, but not so much what you’re doing. Why help Justinian become Archpope if you dislike him so much? Was the power that important to you?”

“I can’t honestly say whether it would have been,” she said, leaning forward and folding her hands in her lap again. Gwenfaer’s eyes narrowed, still fixed on his own in an expression of open displeasure. “Though I lean toward the belief that had I understood Justinian better, I would have fought him. The matter at hand is that I had no idea what kind of creature I was climbing into bed with. You don’t know what it was like, then, Gabriel; this was before you even discovered girls, I think. Justinian Darnay was the Izarite Bishop, which in and of itself was a courtesy post nobody took seriously, least of all the Izarites. He was so likable, such a friendly non-entity. Handsome and slightly interesting due to having done some actual adventuring, during what must surely have been the last time anyone did that and was willing to admit to it. Until this year, of course. Basically, he was a living portrait of the ultimate bland, no-name, nothing politician. I’m not by far the only one who thought Justinian’s papacy would be a serene, steady time in which we could all carry on with our various maneuvering under the nose of everyone’s favorite mild-mannered uncle.”

There was silence for a moment. Gwenfaer’s eyes cut to the side, and she worked her jaw once as if chewing her tongue.

“Wow,” Gabriel said at last. “That did not go the way you expected, huh?”

“Don’t get me wrong, I respect his maneuvering tremendously,” she acknowledged, focusing back on his face. “It was an utterly brilliant ploy. Nobody knew exactly what we were putting in power when we voted him there. And then he was in place, and slowly began putting things in order the way he liked them. The Church was just…interfaith cooperation, before he came along. Now the thing is an actual religious institution in its own right. Its cathedrals were spaces for any Pantheon cult to use, but not only do they have unique Church services instead, now, he’s got chapels in every town on the frontier and working into older cities across the Empire and beyond. And with its own private guard force, research projects, countless methods of exerting political influence…” She shook her head, looking equal parts impressed and angry, and causing Gabriel to marvel at the control she had over her expression. “And all because the Bishops were so certain we’d just installed a hapless figurehead under whom we could go about business as usual. Can you imagine, playing harmless at that level for that long, and using it to attain ultimate power? I don’t think I could have pulled that off.”

Lady Gwenfaer paused, letting the silence hang heavily for a moment before continuing.

“And that, I hope, explains the apparent contradiction to you, Gabriel. I am, in large part, responsible for Justinian being where he is. And his ambitions have grown to the point where I deem it no less than my obligation to impede him. I held aloof for years because I couldn’t discern any end goal behind his maneuvering. I still can’t, but whatever else he is doing, he is centralizing power and authority under the papacy to a degree which for very good reason has not existed since Sipasian’s day. Anyway,” she added in a deliberately more glib tone, once again lounging back against the couch. “That’s why I have made it a point lately to interfere with him. I gather you would not have come here to sound me out unless something beyond the usual run of Church politics had moved you. So I’ll ask again, Gabriel: why are you suddenly so concerned with Justinian?”

He studied her thoughtfully for a moment before replying. She just gazed back, a vision of patience.

“Vesk sent us on a quest this summer,” he said at last. “All three paladins.”

“Vesk did? That sounds annoying.”

“You truly cannot imagine,” he agreed. “I think he had multiple goals, and I suspect I don’t know the half of them. But at least one was to ensure we learned that Justinian has somehow gotten access to ancient machinery of the Elder Gods that was involved in their final destruction, and the Pantheon’s creation. And that he has been using it to try to affect the gods themselves.”

Gwenfaer’s expression did not change by a hair, but very slowly, she straightened up until she was sitting as rigidly upright as a soldier.

“You are certain of this?” Her voice was quiet, and devoid of apparent emotion.

He nodded. “I’ve seen the evidence, incredible as it is. There are also indications, though they’re only circumstantial or you would have been hearing about it already, that he had a hand in what happened to Ninkabi. And the chaos event in Veilgrad before that. In addition to his political ambitions, Justinian is messing with magic nobody needs to touch, and seems to be very interested in how godhood works. I’m sure I don’t need to spell out for you what that equation adds up to.”

She nodded mutely.

“So, yes, we are in agreement,” Gabriel continued. “Justinian needs to go. And I am here, now, because while politics are definitely not my strong suit, Trissiny is heading up an attack on that front and needs our help.”

“Ah, Trissiny,” Gwenfaer said with a vulpine smile. “I like that one. Laressa’s knack for political theater, Sharai’s capacity to smite big old honking demon lords, and the ruthlessness to waterboard aristocrats in public. And still just finding her stride! She’ll go down as one of Avei’s finest, mark my words. What is she up to now?”

“I’m sure you already know the Thieves’ Guild cut ties with the Church in protest after Ninkabi. Bishop Darling has been serving as their interfaith conduit directly with the other cults, rather than going through the Church’s organization.”

“Ah, yes, poor Antonio,” she said solicitously. “He’s been running himself quite ragged.”

“As of today,” Gabriel said, watching her closely, “the Sisterhood of Avei is going to join the Guild in solidarity. Justinian has been refusing to confirm their Bishop candidates, so the High Commander will be appointing one to fill the role regardless, and will also withdraw from the Church. The Avenists have a lot more credibility and influence than the Eserites; this alone may be enough to get the ball rolling with the other cults. But to make it a definitive push, they need the other two Trinity cults to join them.”

For a moment, Gwenfaer just stared at him with her eyes slightly narrowed. Then, slowly, a smile blossomed across her face, a grin that by the second grew wider as it grew more overtly malicious.

“Oh,” she breathed, pausing to lick her lips once in a truly predatory gesture, “I like it.”

This time, he fully believed her.

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Bonus #47: The Light of Dawn, part 2

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The eccentric elf was far from the only one to question the soundness of his plan. Ampophrenon had his own doubts, and did not present it as anything other than a desperate gamble. But no one had a better idea, and it seemed he had earned enough trust among the allies that they were still willing to follow him. He only hoped he would prove worthy of that regard.

Time was not on their side. While the destruction of the last invasion wave was a solid victory, Elilial had the entire population of a world to throw at them, and the Mouth’s fortress was already replenishing its forces, to say nothing of enabling the archdemons and khelminash warlocks to shore up their defenses. Ampophrenon moved immediately to put his stratagem into effect; there was no telling how long they had before the trickle of miscellaneous demons still coming through the Mouth turned into another deluge.

The main body of his troops he sorted as quickly as possible into columns, each with as even a balance of the available assets as he could manage and under the direction of proven officers. The fortress had only one entrance, but they would have their own specific objectives once the gates were breached. The high-value assets he kept with himself at the head of the army, as they would be the first in. He made only a cursory attempt to give out assignments to the assorted adventurers present; it had been his experience that they knew their own strengths (at least, any who had made it alive to this final confrontation) and didn’t tend to work well with regulars anyway. They had ultimately scattered themselves widely, some choosing to join various columns, others joining his impromptu capture teams, and more than a handful drifting off on their own to hunt stray demons or try to infiltrate the fortress their own way.

And so, Ampophrenon swiftly found himself at the head of a massed force ready for their final assault on the powers of Hell itself. He had not resumed his smaller form, and now, from his position at the lowest edge of the plateau, raised his head to its full height. From there he could see the entire assembled army, and they him.

Ranks of soldiers stood at the ready, eyes upon him. Nearer at hand, Sheyann and her shaman were finishing up a mass working ready to be unleashed at his order. Andior and Arachne had already prepared their spells and stood tense and focused, holding onto the destruction they were about to unleash. A green or blue dragon could have discerned more about all these magics at a glance, but even Ampophrenon could see the shapes of them in general. He truly wondered where the elven sorceress had come from, if she was not a high elf; she had conjured as much firepower as the Hand of Salyrene himself. That was a question for another day, however.

“We are all weary,” the dragon stated, projecting his voice to echo across the assembled host. “We are wounded, hungry, and far from our homes, mourning the loss of countless comrades in arms. But we are still here. I am proud to stand alongside each one of you. You, who have marched to the very gates of Hell, enduring untold suffering and joining ranks with many who only a few years ago would have counted each other enemies! Elilial sent forth her hordes to change the face of this world, and looking at you now, I know that she has done so—and before this day is done, she will rue it.”

He lifted his wings, arching their golden span before his waiting soldiers, and raised his head higher still.

“Where before there were the fractious kingdoms of mortals, now there is a host united against evil itself. Over the course of this campaign, we have taught her that our world, our homes, our lives are not hers to take. And now, we go to crush her ambitions finally, and ensure this lesson is one she never forgets!”

Ampophrenon turned his face to Sheyann and nodded once. She nodded back, clapped her hands, and in unison the elves unleashed the craft they had built.

Light blazed from cracks in the very rocks beneath the fortress, green and golden, followed quickly by smoke and gouts of fire where the overwhelming infernal magic suffusing the area fought desperately against the fae. With the power pouring through the Mouth, it had the upper hand, even against the school which trumped it on the Circle, but even as the luminous vines and roots which snaked up to grasp at the foundations and battlements withered and were charred away, the infernal power blazing from the fortress pulsed and faltered. Their spell did not hold long enough to physically damage the structure, but the wards and curses sustaining it fell into instability, some failing outright in explosions of sparks and fire, others struggling to stay solid under the onslaught.

Above them, the constant roiling clouds which had covered the region began to melt. Beginning from the east, where the sun had just risen, streams of golden light cut across the malevolent darkness.

Nearer at hand, the two Dark Riders, eyes luminous but faces otherwise inscrutable behind their black, scarred armor, raised their hunting horns to the shadowy gaps in their helmets. The eerie tone of their horns rang out over the mountains, immediately causing a stir among the assembled troops as the blessing of Sorash descended upon the army. Even Ampophrenon was not untouched by it, attuned to the power of the gods as he was. Fear ebbed away, the pulse quickened, and a rising tide of aggression surged. He had known Sorash’s touch to cause more harm than good in the wrong circumstances, but if ever there was a time for the god of bloodshed to drive an army, this was it. They stood against the fighting core of Elilial’s hordes; this was the last chance for mortal armies to drive back the demons for good. They could not relent here. There would be no half measures, no chance of recouping a loss. Anything less than total victory would mean total defeat.

He let the call of Sorash thrum through him, turning to face the fortress and flaring his wings to their full extent.

In the near distance, as the demons reeled from the fae onslaught, there came a distinctive cry: the shrill keening fury of Elilial’s youngest daughter. Sorash’s blessing would not work for any demons who heard the call, but Vadrieny needed no help to lose herself to sheer rage.

Ampophrenon the Gold roared back, golden fire flickering along his teeth. Behind him, thousands of voices were raised in defiance, the assembled mortal hosts bellowing their final challenge at the damned before their last charge.

With a single beat of his wings, he launched himself aloft and rose to sufficient altitude that he could strike the fortress in a dive, already swelling with indrawn breath and preparing to unleash the fiercest blast of Light-infused dragonfire he could conjure.

At that signal, the two mages unleashed the energies they had meticulously called up. The defenses of the Mouth, already weakened by fae encroachment, were slammed from all sides by a torrent of arcane destruction. Ampophrenon noted in passing how easily he could tell what spell had been conjured by whom. Andior cast the way he did everything: with more style and panache than was strictly necessary. His were the undulating streamers of glowing light which put off pretty multi-colored sparks that ignited persistent fires on everything they touched, including stone and demon flesh. He conjured cylindrical columns of reversed gravity that hurled demons skyward and pulled apart the very stones they touched, and hidden within these distractions, a cunning arcane working that pulled power away from the Mouth itself and set up an unstable feedback which caused the rampant infernal energy present to consume his own arcane spell to the point that it destabilized the surviving infernal wards in the walls. Arachne, by contrast, was unsubtle and direct, even brutal. She called up a galaxy of glowing points all around the fortress, which each streaked downward in a hail of arcane bolts that smashed through walls and bodies alike. Behind them followed a wave of glowing blue orbs that peppered the battlements and ignited like bombs, followed by a third salvo of spherical waves of force she somehow conjured from inside the fortress, sending demons and fragments of masonry spraying in all directions.

It was straight into this firestorm of magical destruction that Ampophrenon dived, emitting a torrent of Lightfire which hit the gates so hard they creaked and buckled even before his own golden bulk smashed into them.

The great iron gates burst from their hinges and slammed into the courtyard beyond, flattening a few unlucky demons, and the very gate fortifications were torn asunder by his impact; one of the towers flanking them crumbled entirely, the other left cracked and shaking, while the stone arch connecting them was hurled in fragments all the way to the Mouth itself.

He was immediately under attack from all sides. Even with destruction raining down on them, demons were never too confused and disoriented to hurl themselves furiously at the biggest target available. Ampophrenon lashed out with fire, with claws, with swings of his tail and incinerating divine spells, making short work of the disorganized demons which tried to assault him.

They were not the true threat, of course. The mages’ work had clearly sufficed to throw the archdemons off their footing, but their retaliation was delayed, not thwarted.

Invazradi was a blazing beacon to his senses, even though she had circumspectly hidden herself within the bulk of the fortress to call spells down on him remotely. No ham-fisted front-line warlock was she, either, but a summoner of intricate magics that immediately put him on the defensive. The chains of sheer infernal fire which had appeared around his limbs were strong enough to hold him momentarily in place even as they burned against the divine power suffusing him. It was the work of just a few seconds’ concentration to pour Light into the gaps in that weaving, causing them to burst apart in explosions of hostile magic, but she had not been trying seriously to hold him down. Just to stagger him for a moment while her sister joined the fray.

Vadrieny actually erupted from beneath a pile of fallen masonry, shooting right at his neck, as she had done before. Off-balance and hampered by the chains he was still dispatching, Ampophrenon had neither room to evade nor concentration to spare for magic to hurl at her. Instead, he shifted his neck to meet her dive face-on, and caught the archdemon in his jaws.

He felt two teeth break as he bit down on her as viciously as he was physically able, then gave her a constrained blast of Lightfire for good measure, violently shaking his head like a dog worrying a captured rodent. Then, with a toss of his neck, he sent the disoriented archdemon hurtling away over the walls.

Azradeh was the leader and strategist among them. Her lack of appearance so far was no coincidence; she would show herself at the moment when her intervention would deliver the greatest impact, likely in conjunction with that third khelminash flying fortress which was still unaccounted for. He would have to trust that he and his allies would be able to contend with whatever she pulled out. Arvanzideen was the stealthy, underhanded one among her sisters, and the Huntsman of Shaath along with the four Silver Huntresses had already been stalking her since long before Ampophrenon had ordered the charge. She would naturally be circling to flank his columns once they were on the move, hopefully not expecting to herself become the prey of fellow hunters. Invazradi was their magical specialist, and already her efforts were slackening as she found herself targeted by both Andior and Arachne, who kept firing beams of pure arcane destruction right into her position, straight through intervening stonework.

That left the littlest sister. Ampophrenon had selected Vadrieny for the brunt of his demonstration precisely because she was an unreasoning brute. Bringing the others to heel was going to take some serious doing. Matching sheer strength against strength, however, he was more than the youngest archdemon could take on—and he, unlike she, was able to act indirectly rather than simply hammering his head against a foe.

She came streaking back at him, screaming in rage all the way, and he turned to meet her, rearing up on his hind legs and disregarding the infernal fireballs which peppered his scales from several demonic warlocks scattered about the beleaguered ramparts.

Her flight veered, however, and Vadrieny’s screech changed in pitch to a keen of dismay as she suddenly went tumbling away on a powerful current of wind that wrenched control from her.

The winds that coursed into the sulfurous fortress suddenly smelled of loam, flowers, and distant forests. Even as Vadrieny went spinning off over the walls again in the opposite direction, frantically beating her wings for control, Sheyann appeared over the fallen gates. The elf was crouched upon a shield-sized maple leaf, which spun and tumbled in the air as seemingly erratically as any falling leaf in the breeze, though she kept her stance on it with characteristic elven agility and even seemed to guide its course into the courtyard. Even as she descended to the charred stones, the leaf slipped out from under her, shrinking back down to a normal size and flying of its own volition into a pouch at her belt right as she landed nimbly beside the dragon.

Vadrieny’s return was heralded by another scream of rage. She soared over the broken ramparts, claws outstretched before her, and shot right for Ampophrenon again.

Before he could unleash another blast of fire, Sheyann gestured contemptuously and Vadrieny once again went sailing off in entirely the wrong direction, this time slamming into the side of a stone tower for which this was clearly the last straw; it collapsed atop her.

“She’s not very bright, is she?” Sheyann said, pitching her voice above the noise of battle. Ampophrenon grinned, then called up a wall of divine light to shield them both from the fragments of masonry hurled forth as Vadrieny once again burst out from beneath the rubble, madder than ever but clearly no worse for wear.

The archdemon lunged across the courtyard at them, wings flared, and was caught and hurled skyward by a sudden updraft which smelled of daisies.

“Stop doing that!” she squalled even as she vanished into the sky above.

Ampophrenon took the opportunity to turn in a complete circle, spraying the blast of dragonfire he had prepared for Vadrieny across the battlements themselves, cleaning away what remained of the demons still trying to hold them. That was the point at which three mounted figures, the two Dark Riders and Razeen astride her gleaming divine mount, vaulted over the rubble of the gates and charged into the courtyard with weapons drawn. Ordinarily a Hand of Avei and Dark Riders of Sorash would attack each other on sight, but now the two black-armored figures astride their skeletal steeds flanked the woman wreathed by golden wings, wheeling around fallen masonry in formation to pile headlong into a cluster of demons which rushed out of the Mouth at them.

Shadows swelled nearby and Invazradi appeared, her smooth sheet of fiery hair in disarray and her expression downright hunted. The archdemon started visibly at finding herself face-to-face with Ampophrenon and Sheyann, but before either could attack her, a spray of spider webs formed of arcane blue light snared and yanked her away.

“No!” Invazradi shrieked, tearing them away in a burst of hellfire and racing off toward the fortress as fast as her hooves could carry her. “Leave me alone!”

“Oh, stop your whining!” Arachne called back, zipping out of the shadows beneath a half-fallen tower. The elf was riding a flattish chunk of stone she had conjured to levitate, and accompanied by a formation of floating blades conjured out of pure arcane magic. “Come take your spanking like a big girl!” She pursued the fleeing archdemon back into the depths of the crumbling fortress without so much as glancing aside at them.

“Here she comes again,” Ampophrenon rumbled as a maddened scream swelled rapidly in volume, Vadrieny descending straight at them from whatever altitude Sheyann had hurled her to. “Be so good as to allow me this time, Elder.”

“Of course, my lord,” the shaman said serenely, already turning to call up thorned vines from the very stones around the Mouth, where they seized and constricted demons trying to swarm Razeen and the Riders.

With no one distorting the winds around her this time, Vadrieny shot straight out of the sky at Ampophrenon in her customary faction: head-on, with not the slightest thought for misdirection or maneuver.

He reared up and, dodging to the side at the last second, reached out and grabbed her with one clawed hand.

Before Vadrieny could turn like a seized snake to bite at him, he whipped her around and smashed her into the nearest tower.

Over the next minute, Ampophrenon wielded the captured archdemon like a flail, spinning this way and that and, gripping her by one leg, slamming her over and over into every surface he could find. He used her to knock over a tower and bash a sizable gap in one of the outer walls, raked a rent in the face of the fortress itself with her body, clipped one edge of the Mouth’s frame (causing the swirling surface of the portal itself to ripple alarmingly). Tiring of vertical surfaces, he slammed her over and over into the ground, turning this way and that to always bring her down on a new spot and leaving a fractured crater in the stone floor of the courtyard at each one. Halfway through this she had stopped even screaming in protest; he wasn’t sure she was still conscious. Not that he particularly cared.

Ampophrenon lightly tossed Vadrieny upward, finally letting go, then lunged his head forward like a striking snake at her limply tumbling form. By sheer accident, he closed his jaws over her head, leaving her dangling from the neck down. There he shook her so rapidly and violently a spray of burning feathers fluttered loose to drift away on the hot air.

With a final, contemptuous flick of his head, he spat her straight at the floor at his feet, then slammed his fist down atop her in a punch that drove her bodily into the stone. Then again, and again, hammering the insensate archdemon deeper into the rubble with each hit.

That, finally, got the reaction for which he had been hoping.

The spells were half-formed and dissipated against his innate magic, complex infernal runes burning away in unfocused explosions upon contact with his aura. They were numerous enough that that might have been the purpose, though, as those explosions hit hard enough to rock him back.

Even lunging half-prepared to rescue her sister, Azradeh was less recklessly direct. She shot straight at Ampophrenon’s face with a scream of rage in such a perfect imitation of Vadrieny that he snatched at her with the same reflex he had just developed in dealing with the younger archdemon, but from Azradeh, it was a feint. She veered nimbly to the side, evading the snap of his jaws with contemptuous ease and raking his face with her own claws in passing, barely missing his eye. Even as he spun to face her retreating form, his motion brought his head into contact with an invisible ward she had placed right behind him; the explosion of pure infernal fire knocked him violently backward.

Azradeh’s flight was interrupted by another gust of distracting wind, but she danced skillfully upon the hostile air currents, a glowing rod of purple-tinged fire manifesting in one hand even as she floated. Though she hurled it like a javelin, what flew from her claws at Sheyann was a branching streak of orange lightning which forced the elf to dodge with every scrap of elven agility she could muster, and even so she was singed in passing violently enough to make her lose her step, tumbling to the stone floor.

The archdemon dived past Ampophrenon again, and this time he had learned more caution, exhaling a burst of flame at her in passing rather than risking another physical grab. The invisible rune trap she had tried to lead him into erupted at the contact with Light-infused fire; he was far enough from this one not to be caught as closely in the blast, but it wasn’t the same kind of explosion this time, either. The burst of infernal force was directed, and smashed into him in a focused stream, once more shoving him back.

In his momentary lapse, Azradeh made a dive for the pit into which Vadrieny’s body had been pounded, but she was repulsed by a bell-like tone accompanying a burst of blue light as one of the mages fired a shot across her nose. Though sent tumbling, she quickly corrected and swooped away to perch atop the stone rim of the Mouth itself.

“Before you act in haste, Lord Ampophrenon,” she shouted, “raise your eyes!”

He didn’t need the exhortation. While reeling back from her, he had caught sight of the third khelminash fortress suddenly hovering above the Mouth, blazing with prepared infernal spells ready to be unleashed.

His own troops were only just reaching the fortress on the heels of the few heavy hitters who had been the first in. The fastest wave of adventurers was already taking the walls, dealing with surviving demons and joining the fray at the Mouth itself where more reinforcements were streaming out of Hell. The main columns were still coming, though; some were to take up positions outside the fortress while the rest entered and divided themselves among its perimeter to secure the space and have their casters dismantle the wards still protecting it. Now, though, they were within range of the khelminash flying fortress’s weapons. The soldiers were on the march and not expecting that kind of attack from above. Even if some of the clerics and mages among them managed to put up shields, it was unlikely to be enough.

He could take the thing down, but at the cost of leaving himself vulnerable to Azradeh. It was not arrogance to acknowledge that he was the most physically potent asset the allies had; if he fell, the entire plan would unravel. There was currently no sign of Arachne, Andior, or Sheyann. Razeen and both Riders, having been granted a reprieve by the adventurers joining them at the portal, had seen both Azradeh and the flying fortress but could reach neither; they were melee combatants.

Azradeh raised both hands above her head, a blazing orange rune glowing between them. Matching symbols lit the air in a ring around the khelminash fortress above as its inherent weapons were further augmented by her spell.

“One chance, lizard!” the archdemon called. “Step away from my sister and bow your head before me. Then, perhaps, I will—”

The runes limning the fortress pulsed simultaneously with the one in her grip, and for a blinding instant, they were connected by a visible torrent of blazing magic which, during its brief existence, transitioned from infernal orange to arcane blue.

Azradeh tumbled limply off the gateway to hit the ground in front of it, unconscious.

“I don’t care what anyone says,” Andior called down from the flying fortress’s ramparts as he appeared upon them and struck a pose. “I’m keeping it!”

Ampophrenon grunted, pausing only to watch Razeen and both Dark Riders swarm Azradeh’s prone body, then bent and reached into the hole he had just pounded.

Vadrieny finally looked quite bedraggled, her dragonscale armor hanging off her in shreds. The archdemon was struggling weakly to extricate herself from the wreckage, and blinked her fiery eyes blearily up at Ampophrenon as he lifted her out of it. Grasping her torso in one fist, he held her up so they were face-to-face.

“Young lady,” he growled, “go home.”

Then he hurled her into the portal with all the strength he could muster, adding a blast of dragonfire to speed her along.

“The message is sent,” he declared. “Are we ready?”

“One accounted for,” Razeen reported, stalking over to him and dragging Azradeh along by a grip on her hair. She hurled the archdemon contemptuously to the ground and planted the crystal tip of her divine spear against her back right between the wings. Azradeh’s limbs were bound by chains of dark iron which streamed luminous mist, cruel weapons of the Dark Riders that would keep her both weakened and in constant pain.

A sparkle of blue light upon the air heralded the arrival of Arachne and Invazradi by teleportation. “Two!” the sorceress said, looking inordinately pleased with herself despite her dress being rent almost to rags and about half her hair burned away. Oddly it was the archdemon who appeared the more traumatized of them; not only was she too bound up in glowing chains and reams of what looked like spider silk to move, she was wide-eyed and appeared to be trembling. More bindings covered her mouth, fortunately. “Ah, Sheyann, there you are. I was almost to worry.”

“Well done, Arachne,” the shaman said, limping up to them. “She tried to flee, I take it?”

“Tried to get hostages,” Arachne replied, her face falling into a scowl. “She got her claws on Chucky again.”

Sheyann turned such a stare on Invazradi that the bound archdemon actually whimpered. “Is the boy…?”

“He has lost no limbs and not very much blood. He will have some bad dreams, I think.”

“I see,” the Elder replied coldly. “Razeen, if you would be so kind?”

“Remember we need them alive, Elder,” Ampophrenon cautioned.

“Not to worry,” Razeen assured him, and then brought her spear down in an overhead arc, slamming the broad flat of the blade atop Invazradi’s head. The archdemon crumpled without a sound.

“Why could she be not that fragile before?” Arachne complained. “If ever I have to deal with these annoying kids again, I want them to be pre-beaten-up by wizards and dragons and paladins. Much easier.”

“Lord Ampophrenon!” Andior called from atop his captured flying fortress, pointing at the distance. “Last one accounted for! Torol and the Huntresses have Arvanzideen pinned, but I think the could use your aid to bring her to heel.”

Ampophrenon rose, spreading his wings. “It will be my pleasure!” He took to the air and set off in the direction the Hand of Salyrene had indicated, to grab the last archdemon and finally finish this.


With their targets secured, he stood guard over the Mouth itself, preparing to face what he knew would come out of it. The sudden arrival of a badly-beaten Vadrieny followed by a blast of Lightfire would send the message loud and clear, but they should have the luxury of a little time to prepare. Elilial was still Elilial; even in a vengeful rage, she would observe and plan before acting.

Ampophrenon gave her something to observe, all right.

Arvanzideen had been harried and frustrated to the point that she was much easier to grab than her sisters had been, though upon seeing Ampophrenon coming she had tried to flee. That lasted until Andior unleashed the khelminash fortress’s full arsenal upon her, and after that the dragon had hauled the insensate archdemon back to join the rest.

Now, all three were on their knees in the courtyard, facing the portal, and covered in thorn vines summoned by Sheyann and sustained by several of her fellow shaman. Those thorns pricked supposedly invulnerable flesh, inflicting a constant torrent of fae magic that kept the three weakened and vulnerable. As added insurance, they had Razeen, both Dark Riders, the two surviving Huntresses and Torol holding weapons upon them. Ampophrenon had made it clear that while he wanted them alive, no one was to hesitate in killing them if it became necessary. So far, all three had opted to be cooperative.

All around them, the shattered fortress swarmed with soldiers and clerics, dismantling the last remaining infernal wards and traps and administering a systematic cleansing. It was an ultimately futile measure as long as the Mouth remained active, as the infernal radiation blaring out would just corrupt everything all over again, but keeping up the steady flow of divine magic was necessary just to make this area relatively safe for mortals to be in. Ampophrenon’s presence helped, especially as he deliberately extended his own shining aura to help protect his soldiers. Even so, it would be necessary to meticulously cleanse everyone after this.

The Mouth had gone quiet, swirling before them in ominous silence that was as good as a warning that Elilial’s eyes were upon them. Azradeh had a smug look on her face which said the same. Andior and Arachne had joined him before the portal, as had over two dozen scattered adventurers, helping to keep watch on the captives and the Mouth itself.

Still they waited.

“Enough of this,” the dragon rumbled as the minutes stretched on with no response. “Razeen, bleed one of them.”

The Hand of Avei grinned and pressed the tip of her spear against Azradeh’s throat.

The Mouth burst alight, finally revealing what had been prepared behind it. The perspective of the thing changed, a size-distorting effect commonly associated with the physical presence of gods stretching its capacity. Though its physical boundaries remained the same, suddenly there gaped before them an aperture through which an army could pass.

And there was indeed an army behind it, visible through shimmering waves of heat and magic, a fresh horde of thousands of demons stretching away from the expanded portal. At the forefront stood towering monstrosities which could surely not have fit bodily into the wrecked fortress, much less through the portal itself—and yet, undoubtedly, they would.

Because front and center, she was there.

Elilial stepped out, leaving her minions as a silent warning just on the other side of the gate, facing them alone and with no sign of fear at the forces arrayed before her. It was not as if they were a physical threat to her.

“Reconsider,” the Queen of Demons advised, fixing her burning gaze on Razeen.

The Hand of Avei curled her lip disdainfully, and for a moment Ampophrenon feared she would behead Azradeh out of sheer spite. But an Avenist understood nothing if not discipline, and after an ominous pause she lifted the blade of her spear away.

“Mother,” Azradeh said with impressive calm, given her position. “I apologize for this shameful display. Is Vadrieny all right?”

Elilial held up a finger, and the archdemon instantly quieted.

“Did I not so respect your intelligence, dragon,” the goddess said, “I might conclude from this little diorama that you think you have me at a disadvantage. But no—a smart fellow like you surely understands that what you are threatening me with is inciting a wrath like NOTHING YOU CAN IMAGINE.”

Her voice, at the end, ceased to be a voice and became a force, rippling creation itself backward with the sheer intensity of its rage. Ampophrenon could feel his assembled soldiers quailing behind him.

He reared up on his hind legs, towering over Elilial, and roared, spreading both his wings and his aura to suffuse the entire area with Light. The goddess just stared at him ironically, but the gathered mortals rallied, and the general backward movement which had begun ceased.

“Your threats mean nothing,” Ampophrenon thundered. “You’ve played your hand long since, wretched creature! You have nothing else to offer but more destruction—nothing we haven’t seen in plenty, and nothing you did not fully intend to do anyway. If you have nothing to speak but empty bluster, then still your sly tongue and listen. This is the compromise I offer you: instead of pursuing the complete destruction you so deserve, I am willing to call a cessation of all hostilities. Withdraw your vile minions and close your portal, and I will refrain from teaching you the pain you have inflicted on countless mothers already. Or press for whatever victory you think you can attain, and I swear you will pay for every inch in the blood of your blood.”

She met his stare, and the force of her personality was like a tsunami. Ampophrenon the Gold stood against it, unflinching.

Elilial shifted her gaze from his, to pan it slowly across the assembly, taking time to study each gathered foe in turn, from the paladins to the meanest adventurers.

“Arachne,” she said at last, pressing her lips together in disapproval. “I see you wasted no time in getting neck-deep in trouble.”

“You should not burn down the world, Lil,” Arachne explained in a reasonable tone. “People live here. Also, it is nice! Have you seen the forest? Very pretty.”

In the ensuing pause, everyone present turned to stare at her.

“I will not forget that you dared to lay a hand on my daughters, elf,” the goddess stated flatly.

“Your daughters needed to have been spanked more,” the sorceress retorted. “I will not forget that I had to come after you and do it myself! Do I look like a person who should be responsible for other people’s kids?”

“Enough stalling,” Ampophrenon rumbled. “I will have your answer or your blood, demon queen.”

“No.” Elilial turned a knowing smile back on him. “You’ll have what I choose to give you, and be grateful for that much.”

“Mother, please,” Invazradi squalled.

“You shut up!” Azradeh snapped at her.

Ampophrenon rustled his wings. “You try my patience.”

“You call my threats empty?” the goddess said scornfully. “We both know you—”

He whipped his tail around, infusing the spaded tip with a glowing torrent of Light, and drove it through Arvanzideen’s wing, pinning her to the ground and blasting a wave of divine magic through her. She screamed, a sound of agony that made many of those assembled clutch their ears.

Elilial surged forward, the artifice washed away from her face by a mask of rage, already reaching for Ampophrenon. He was attuned enough to the ways of gods to know that the physical manifestation he saw, her hands going for his neck, was only a paltry reflection of the forces being aimed at him. Meeting her eyes, he roared, and twisted his tail, grinding the stone beneath Arvanzideen into gravel and mangling her wing.

“Stop it!” Azradeh shrieked. “Pick on me, you beast!”

“Heroes,” he thundered right into Elilial’s face. “If she moves, they all die.”

The chorus of approbation that answered him was downright eager. Dark Riders did not speak, but one pressed the tip of his black sword so hard into Invazradi’s side that droplets of smoking blood welled up.

Slowly, Elilial gathered herself, drawing back from him. In her silence, Invazradi whimpered and Arvanzideen emitted choked noises of suppressed pain. Azradeh twisted in her bonds to glare venomously up at Ampophrenon, ignoring the spear and the black sword pressing their tips to her throat from different angles.

Then, incongruously, Elilial smiled.

“I have what I needed from this campaign,” she said in a suddenly lazy tone, making a languid gesture with one hand. “You shall have your terms, dragon. Release my children and go simpering back to your Pantheon with your hollow victory. The portal will be dismantled, and I will leave you to enjoy the improvements I’ve wrought in this world while you were busy…babysitting.”

He met her eyes for a few seconds longer, then yanked his tail from Arvanzideen’s wing, noting how the sound she made caused her mother to flinch even through her mask of control.

“We have an accord,” the dragon said aloud. “Justice is delayed, Elilial. Not thwarted. The arc of history is long, and all actions yield consequences. Remember that.”

“Oh, yes,” she agreed. “Yes, they do. One day, Ampophrenon, I will enjoy reminding you of that lesson.”

“This is boring,” Arachne said loudly. “I will settle it: his dick is bigger. There, done. Now take your dumb kids and go back where you belong, you crazy bag of fire!”

It was not the end to the Third Hellwar that Ampophrenon had anticipated, but it would give the mortal world room to recover. And for now, that would be enough.

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Bonus #46: The Light of Dawn, part 1

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This chapter topic was requested by Kickstarter backers Lanky and Akashavani!

“It’s a mess out there, milord,” the Silver Huntress reported, dismissing the spectral hawk which had just returned to her shoulder into mist. “Our forces are still scattered across the approach; some of the adventurers and light regulars have been able to go over the rocks, but most of the infantry are still pinned down in the passes. Friendlies are converging on the mountain from all over the east, there are contingents from Thacaar on their way from the west, and scattered smaller groups from multiple other directions, mostly adventurer parties. Everyone’s being harassed by demons, though. It won’t take long for the stragglers to be picked off at this rate, and even the bigger groups are drawing more attention from the enemy.”

He placed a hand on her shoulder briefly in acknowledgment and thanks, his scarred steel gauntlet peeking out from beneath the ragged sleeve of his brown robe.

“All according to plan at the moment, then,” he said, turning to Razeen. “You know what that means.”

“It’s all gone to hell on us before,” she replied, raising her chin defiant. “Yet here we stand.”

“Here we stand,” he agreed, shifting his head to look across their assembled forces. They had secured the best vantage in the region, a flat if slightly tilted plateau which looked melted, as if some awesome heat source had scoured away its once-jagged peak. Here in the Wyrnrange, that was likely to have been the case. With some twelve hundred troops forming a ring near the center of the plateau, they were not only the largest concentration of allied forces in the area, but had occupied the only tenable position overlooking the Mouth itself. That made them the target of a lot of demonic attention.

Not enough, though. Not yet.

The Mouth itself was no ordinary hellgate, but the cause of this infernal war. A simple set of standing stones, obsidian from the local mountains, it towered twenty feet in height and almost that wide, enabling the ingress of not only large numbers of troops from Hell, but sizable demons of types which had never before made it to the mortal plane. The allies had secured every minor hellgate possible, but the Third Hellwar would never come to a stop until the Mouth was destroyed and Elilial’s forces denied access to this world. Consequently, it was a heavily if sloppily fortified position, surrounded by a hasty construction of walls and towers, manned by swarms of demons and even featuring some primitive siege engines.

Even as he turned to look, a flaming pitch-coated stone came soaring toward them from one of the catapults and was blasted out of the air by one of his own mages, probably Vadigern himself.

They were being pressed, both by three columns of demons clambering up the plateau’s main approaches and by constant harassment from smaller ones which could clamber up the steeper sides of the mountain, to say nothing of the relentless pressure from above. The Silver Huntress, Ayavi, had already rejoined the mages and rangers in shooting down katzils and bhavghai which spat flame and acid against the shield their priests were trying to maintain.

“I will begin,” he said to Razeen, Vadigern and Rolof, raising his hands to the sides and already beginning to channel divine magic in an intricate working. “You all know the plan. I am sorry to leave our people to face this without my aid, but they must hold.”

Razeen Alshadai, the last living Hand of Avei, held up the crystal-tipped spear she had recently acquired in a salute. “And hold we will!”

“The men trust you,” Rolof added before turning to follow her back to the front, the dwarf’s face mostly hidden behind his thick helmet. “Do your duty, my lord, as will we all.”

Vadigern, ever a man of few words, just nodded to him and turned back around, raising his hands to hurl arcane spells at the swarming demons.

It was ignited quickly once he began, a feat of divine magic more complex than most upon the mortal plane could have achieved. A vast spell circle rose from the very ground around the defensive lines of the soldiers holding this plateau, three luminous rings of glyphs which rotated in alternating directions, and in all the area within, silver mist coalesced out of the very stone. This would help both repulse the demons and invigorate their flagging troops, but it was the lesser part of the purpose.

From the very center of the circle, the spot where he stood with hands upheld, a column of pure light burst up from the stone, soaring to a hundred feet in height, where it erupted into a radiance like the sun. The ankh, an ancient symbol associated with divine magic irrespective of faith, formed out of pure light in midair and hovered above his spot, casting golden light in every direction and filling the air with the pure, shivering tone of bells.

Immediately, a roar went up from the fortress surrounding the Mouth. Demons continued to stream out of the gate itself, but those clustered in and around the fortifications surged outward to attack.

The beacon would provide guidance to his scattered allies, while also drawing the attention of the enemy. Attention, and unrelenting assault. One of the few saving graces of conducting war against demons was the mindless aggression to which infernal poisoning made them prone; even a reasonably competent general could usually outmaneuver an enemy which knew no tactic but frontal attack.

They could hold for a while, having turtled up as thoroughly as possible without actually erecting field fortifications. Their front ranks consisted of the regulars from Stovolheim; dwarves were some of the best heavy infantry in the world, being tough, nearly immovable, and usually possessed of the very best armor and shields. Unfortunately, fighting demons changed a number of calculations, and he had blundered immediately upon adding the dwarves to his forces when a wave of hthrynxkhs had simply vaulted over the dwarves and torn into his archers. Waves of ikthroi and baerzurgs had likewise piled against the Stovol troopers until they were buried by sheer weight. Now, he had them positioned with second ranks of lighter infantry behind, mostly from the League of Avei and the Sorashi Chosen, both to counter such tactics and to surge forward whenever a gap was opened in their lines. Priests were placed at intervals among the second ranks with orders to conserve their magic for shielding against spellfire and delivering unfocused bursts of divine energy to break up massed demon attacks. The rest of the priests stood back in the innermost ring, offering healing and maintaining the shields that kept them from being swarmed from above, interspersed with the archers, mages, and witches who were holding back aerial assaults and intermittently focusing fire on especially large demons which reached the front lines.

It was a tested and true formation, but they were now in the open, isolated from support, and facing what had to be at least six times their number, with the discrepancy growing by the second as more demons streamed through the Mouth. They simply could not hold forever. Of course, the plan did not require them to, but it did call for the defenders to stand their ground under unrelenting assault for an indeterminate time, until they were under the maximum possible pressure and the Mouth’s fortress was emptied of its host.

And his part in the plan, for now, was to stand there and let them. The beacon did not require him to actively maintain it, though he did have to protect the working from attack by warlocks. That took little of his attention, however. For the time being, he had to watch the movement of the demons and let his comrades fight and die while he stood there doing nothing to aid them.

He added this pain to the list of grievances he planned to throw at the Dark Lady’s hooves at the end of this.

The distances involved were not small; it took nearly twenty minutes for the wave of attackers which surged out of the Mouth’s fortress to swarm up onto their plateau from the passes between the two rises, and less than half that for the redoubled efforts of the demons already converging upon them to be broken by their divine-augmented turtle. That at least gave the front ranks a breather, though the pressure from above never let up and in fact grew worse as time went on. Andior’s recent gambit had deprived the demons of most of their sapient fliers until more could be brought through the Mouth, leaving only the katzils and bhagvai to provide them air support. Those, of course, were both dumb animals and demons, so when taunted by the blazing divine sigil they streamed in steadily from miles in every direction. The pressure they exerted wasn’t nearly enough to break the defenders, but it was constant.

Fortunately it was beginning to taper off by the time the main wave impacted the dwarven lines.

And still the fortress was not emptied. Still columns of howling demons poured in through the Mouth.

As the attackers hit, they were given a reminder of why gambits like this were necessary, why demons could not be assumed to be mindless brutes. Timed to coincide with the impact of the horde upon the defending lines, two of the khelminash flying fortresses revealed themselves.

They preferred not to become targets until they had engaged an enemy. The relatively small fortresses that could be brought through the Mouth seemed to have limited power, and the warlocks piloting them could not maintain their Cloak of Shadows while doing anything aggressive. Now, one of them began reaching out through subtle flows of infernomancy to probe at his beacon. Those were easy enough to deflect, and despite their caution they inadvertently revealed which was behind it, as the other fortress opted instead to pelt his northwestern lines with spells.

The priests shifted to put up stronger divine walls in that direction and he focused his attention on the other fortress, so far doing nothing except effortlessly deflecting their efforts, while also watching for a sudden attack from them; the khelminash were lucid enough to exercise actual strategy, and it wouldn’t have marked the first time he had seen them draw off priests in order to hit them from behind their divine shields. There was still the third fortress that he knew had come through the Mouth, which was still cloaked somewhere in the vicinity.

Not that he could have done anything, had they chosen to attack. He had to stand, and wait, and not reveal himself until the time was right.

The mob manning the walls around the Mouth was finally thinning out. Their reinforcements through the portal itself had not abated, but he had already concluded he would have to act before they did. It was the fortifications that posed the problem; the infernal wards and counter-spells in them were enough to threaten even him. They could be dealt with, but not while he was dealing with all the other demons. For now, he just had to get them out from behind their walls and exposed.

The khelminash fort assaulting them listed and began to drift away as it was hammered by arcane spellfire from Vadigern and his fellow mages, and its inherent magic began to falter until more judicious pressure from the witches in their ranks. Both began to retreat, the damaged one drifting downward as it did so. Damned khelminash; they just couldn’t throw their lives away like all their vile brethren. It was a blessing that they were rarely seen on the mortal plane.

To the surprise of probably everyone involved, it was the second fortress which was destroyed first, even as the damaged one drifted out of range. The barrage of arcane fire that pierced its walls came from off to the northeast; clearly some of the allied forces trickling in were heavy hitters, and not too distracted by all the demonic harassment to contribute to the battle. The fortress’s hellseed core collapsed in an explosion that sprayed chunks of stone in all directions, felling friend and foe alike within the range of its fallout.

The circular lines had shrunk, pressed in from all sides. There they had stopped, the lines having retreated to leave the outermost edges of the divine spell circle beyond their feet, which created a blessed ground that weakened any demons which approached. That gave the defenders the chance to firm up, but inevitably they would be pushed back again. If the line broke entirely and demons swarmed into the center it would be all over, but it would not come to that. Should that seem imminent he would take action early to prevent it, even at the cost of denying them a decisive victory over the Mouth’s fortress. So long as the allies survived in some form, they could continue to fight. There just weren’t enough left from the shattered kingdoms outside the Wyrnrange to reinforce them again. If the forces here were lost, the world was lost.

He could tell the moment was near. The walls were all but emptied, only a relatively few stubborn and/or clever demons remaining in their shelter. Still the fortress gates were open and providing a path for the constant stream pouring out of Hell to join the offensive. Elilial must have just massed another sizable force on the other side of the Mouth, preparatory to invading. They just wouldn’t stop. Already the demons’ numbers had nearly doubled since he had launched the beacon, even with the constant attrition they suffered from piling against his defenses.

Then they faltered.

Immediately he cast his vision upward, linking his consciousness to the beacon itself to gain a bird’s eye view of the area. From there he could see the many groups of mortals converging on their position, having been freed to move by the distraction the beacon provided; almost no stray demons were bothering with anyone else when so enraging a target blared a challenge at them.

More importantly, he was right: the flow of forces out of the Mouth had slowed. Whether they were truly running out or had paused temporarily for some logistical reason on the other side, he did not know and did not wait to find out. Much more of this and his lines would begin to buckle. This was the moment.

He re-oriented his perception to his body, and in a swell of magic, launched himself straight upward, soaring up to almost twice the height of the beacon itself. For a bare second he hovered there, a figure in battle-scarred armor beneath a cowled robe of plain brown. Probably none but the still-hidden third khelminash fortress even noticed him.

At least, until he revealed his other form.

Colossal golden wings spread over his armies, and he poured magic into the beacon. A pulse of pure divine energy flashed out from the circle in all directions, bodily sweeping back the demon tide and burning many of them to ash. It gave his beleaguered lines a breather, but more importantly, it put the frontmost ranks of demons far enough from his own people that there would be no friendlies caught in his next move.

With a roar that echoed from mountain to mountain to the horizon, Ampophrenon the Gold descended upon the exposed demon hordes in an apocalyptic fury of fire and Light.

Plunging downward, he pirouetted neatly on one wingtip, whirling in a tight circle above the ring of his defending forces and spraying the demons surrounding them with a constant stream of fire. Dragonfire in its un-augmented state was one of relatively few heat-based magics that burned through infernal defenses on its own. Demons favored fire themselves, and stood up well to arcane and even fae variants. He, though, had long since so infused himself with divine energy that it was a major component of the flame he breathed. The fire he exhaled across the demons was so fierce and so anathema to them that they did not burn so much as dissolve. Nothing but dust was left to stain the rocks.

To their credit, whoever was leading the demons reacted swiftly, bolstering the defenses around the fortress. Infernal magic did not provide shields as such, but more power swelled in the wards until the sheer infernal energy radiating outward from the walls took on an almost physical force, dispersed through an array that skillfully mirrored the layout of the fortifications themselves. It wouldn’t do anything to actually strengthen the walls but would bolster the demonic defenders and pose a threat to anyone trying to assault the keep.

He couldn’t spare a second to do anything to counter it. His desperate gambit had bought him a single window in which to annihilate as much of the enemy’s forces as he could. Nearly all were outside the fortress’s protection, and most had converged to make a single, conveniently massed target. He would not have time to hunt down stragglers; it was now or never.

Ampophrenon spun in wider circles, spraying streams of divine flame in three more passes before he had burned away the entire forces encircling his on the mountaintop. More demons were clustered on the approaches, and he diverted himself to dive onto each, blasting every path in its entirety with a wide spread of fire to cleanse it of demon filth. Some at the edges might have survived; there was just no time to be meticulous.

Maneuvering in midair at the greatest speed with which he was able, it was the work of moments to clean off the approaches, and then he set to work on the main body of demons.

Spells and missiles peppered him as he descended, but nothing this rabble could throw would pierce either his hide or his magical defenses. He had to track back and forth against this much larger horde, pivoting repeatedly to scour them off the face of the earth. Again, he prioritized speed over thoroughness, but even so, an army that had to have been sixty thousand strong disappeared to ash in minutes under the force of his fury. Almost before he knew it, he had created a scorched but clean reach of stone where there had been a hellish army leading right up to the outermost wards surrounding the fortress itself. By the time he got there, he had already enjoyed the rare sight of massed demons trying to retreat. They wouldn’t flee from anything they could fight, no matter how hopeless the odds, but even the demons could plainly see they were contending with a force of nature.

And still, he was free to rain destruction on them. Banking away from the painful burn of the magic radiating out of the fortress, he considered whether the extra moments he had somehow been granted would be better spent making another pass to clean up any surviving demons or unleashing an attack on the Mouth’s defenses themselves. He surely didn’t have much time before—

She was moving at well over the speed of sound; even his reflexes barely saved him. He was able to put up a strong enough divine shield that the impact wasn’t instantly catastrophic, but she still smashed through it and got a grip on his neck, even as the force of the hit sent them both tumbling half a mile away.

Ampophrenon roared in outrage and pain, tossing his head as he fought to turn his wild horizontal fall back into a glide. She ignored all this, clawing and biting at his scales like a maddened badger—a flying badger whose talons could rend steel and who shrugged off all but the most overwhelming magics.

He took no chances with half-measures against this one. The dragon pumped his wings once, shooting straight upward, then rolled over in midair at the apex of his ascent and beat them again, hurling himself toward the ground at the greatest speed he could manage.

He hit the side of a mountain back-first, throwing up the most resilient divine shield he could manage right at the moment of impact, crushing her beneath the overwhelming force of his Light and the unyielding rock below.

The rock gave before either she or the Light did. In fact, the impact made a sizable crater beneath them, but she was crushed even deeper into the stone. At least the blow dazed her enough that she let go, and he was able to hurl himself forward and away again, leaving what must have been half the mountain to crumble atop her.

Ampophrenon shot across the air to the nearest mountainside, where he landed on all fours and nimbly spun to face his attacker. Already she was clambering out of the wreckage they had made of the mountain.

The dragon spread his wings, roaring a warning at her.

Vadrieny fanned her own, and screamed right back, a brain-clawing sound that made the very air shiver in pain.

The detestable little brute was clad in the only armor that could stand up to the kinds of abuse to which she subjected it, and even so it was already ragged and beginning to fall apart. That would be adding insult to injury, but the sheer insult of dressing herself in dragonscales was unmatched to begin with.

She gathered herself, crouching to lunge across the gap between them, and Ampophrenon blasted her with a concentrated stream of Light-infused dragonfire, pounding her bodily back into the crater.

It was an open question whether enough of that over a prolonged period could have really harmed the archdemon, but this was not the day he got to test it. Almost immediately he broke off his attack and shot upward, evading another sneak assault.

Azradeh was generally more circumspect than her sister. Her approach was not nearly so fast or violent, enabling him to dodge her, but also giving herself wiggle room to adjust her dive to avoid piling face-first into the stone. She wheeled away to join Vadrieny, and he took the opportunity to retreat.

He did not actually know whether he could defeat two archdemons alone; he had not had the opportunity to face off against one. Most of the seven were too careful to risk themselves against the relatively few foes who could actually threaten them, and they kept a firm grip on the rest—like Vadrieny, who lacked the sense to retreat from danger and only wasn’t dead already because she obeyed orders from her elder sisters.

Regardless, this was not the time. He was not merely a warrior of the Light, but a general, and there was too much at stake here for him to go haring off in pursuit of one or even two targets, no matter how significant.

Apparently, Azradeh agreed. As Ampophrenon soared back to the mountain on which his forces were assembled, two much smaller figures flew in a wide arc to avoid him as they returned to their nearby fortress.


As it turned out, the forces massing beyond the portal really were depleted. They continued to trickle forth, but at nowhere near the previous rate. Slowly the fortress’s defenders were replenished, but in one fell swoop Ampophrenon had annihilated the bulk of what was meant to be another wave of invaders sizable enough to overrun yet another kingdom. It had been cheap in military terms, given what it had cost him in the lives of his own troops, but even this victory did not end the war. There was still the Mouth itself, and breaking its defenses would not be a small task.

The beacon remained lit, and over the next hours, the scattered forces of the mortal allies converged on the flat mountaintop even as the demons slowly bolstered their own numbers again. The remainder of Ampophrenon’s own troops were among the first, and he inwardly cringed at their numbers; fully half had been lost to demon attacks on the way there. Splitting up his army among the scattered adventurer teams to disguise their strength had worked, insofar as it had baited the demons into overconfidence and ultimately cost them their entire invasion force, but the butcher’s bill had been even more than he feared.

Not only his own army had answered the call, though, and the allied encampment swelled with each passing hour.

Adventurers there were aplenty, of course. They weren’t much good in massed combat, but Ampophrenon had found their chaotic approach a useful counter to the even more chaotic methods of the enemy; demons and adventurers didn’t take orders well and might do just about any fool thing. The gangs of wandering, heavily-armed malcontents and loners at their worst made a serviceable distraction enabling him to execute actual strategy against the demons, and at their best proved instrumental in pulling off surprising victories. The best adventurers, after all, were known for succeeding when by all rights they should not be able to. Without performing an actual head count, he estimated close to two hundred had gathered. He would definitely find uses for them.

In terms of actual soldiers, he gained a force from the Western tribes almost two-thirds the size of his own spellcaster-backed infantry. They were light and agile, able to cross the forbidding mountains with good speed; mostly spearmen, archers, a few swordsmen and a dedicated corps of shaman, with the added benefit of a smattering of priests. Three separate parties of Rangers had arrived, forming an additional seven hundred troops, as well as a surprising contingent of elves under the leadership of an Elder called Sheyann, whom Ampophrenon had not met but knew by reputation.

Typical. He needed heavy infantry and divine casters, so of course the gods had sent him a bunch of the finest scouts and archers in existence. No time did he waste on complaints, however. War was not chess; one maneuvered against circumstance as much as against the enemy general.

There were some real boons among the late arrivals, however. Sheyann herself was a significant asset, even in comparison with other elven shaman. Three more Silver Huntresses had turned up, as well as an actual Huntsman of Shaath, and two Dark Riders of Sorash. His forces also gained some significant arcane firepower; Andior Caladaan was not dead, as Ampophrenon had feared, but arrived looking somewhat the worse for wear and no less pleased with himself for it. Like most Hands of Salyrene, he could be a trial to deal with, but as he had been the one to singlehandedly bring down that khelminash fortress, Ampophrenon was inclined to let him strut a little. Sheyann’s party also brought the most surprising arrival yet, a powerful high elven sorceress who spoke with an accent the dragon couldn’t place, and also seemed to be slightly crazy.

“Wow,” the woman introduced to him as Arachne said, gazing at his towering golden bulk with a childlike expression of glee. “Are there any more like you at home? A few of these and we will maybe spank Elilial right where the sun does not shine!”

Standing right behind her, Sheyann sighed and shook her head, but did not intervene. Ampophrenon decided to assume it was a serious question.

“None who can be here in time to help,” he said, keeping his powerful voice to a courteous low rumble. “My brethren are unfortunately difficult to persuade that Elilial’s depredations are any concern of theirs, and even those with the sense to lend aid… Several have already fallen. Ramandiloth, Syranorn and Khadizroth are aiding from a distance, assaulting the Dark Lady’s forces elsewhere to help buy us this opportunity. What you see,” he added, straightening up and sweeping one wing to indicate the assembled mortal forces, “is what we have to work with.”

“Hm…maybe not so much, to attack Hell,” she observed.

“That’s not even on the table,” Razeen replied, leaning on her spear. “Our mission here is to stop the invasion, not launch our own. The portal must be destroyed.”

“And for that reason,” Ampophrenon said, nodding first to her and then to Andior, “the arrival of powerful mages is most welcome. We will sorely need experts in portal magic. I am grateful to see any help from the high elves; you alone are more than I expected.”

“High elves?” The woman blinked at him in apparent confusion, then turned to peer over the heads of the surrounded soldiers at the mountain range beyond. “Well… I guess this is as high as I have ever been. I have spent more time under mountains than on top, now that I consider on it.”

Ampophrenon stared at her. Sheyann caught his eye, made a face, and shook her head again, so he decided to leave that alone.

“What is your plan, exactly?” Andior interjected. “Because despite the difference in its scale, that is still fundamentally a hellgate. We can probably disrupt it by destroying it physical housing, but that will only destabilize the rift and then I have honestly no idea what will happen. To truly close it we must have someone working on the other side.”

“Ah,” said Arachne, “so my idea was maybe not so wrong, yes?”

“And who would you propose to abandon in Hell?” Razeen demanded. “Would you do it?”

“I have not seen Hell,” the elf mused. “Could be interesting. Demons are not very good company, though. How close is the least far hellgate from here? Maybe I can walk back that way.”

“I…wasn’t seriously asking…” The Hand of Avei looked a little unnerved by the sorceress’s apparent willingness to sacrifice herself.

Arachne frowned at her. “Then why do you open your mouth? This seems like not a right time for jokes.”

“Peace,” Ampophrenon rumbled. “Tensions are inevitably high in this situation, and we have gathered together many who would not voluntarily seek one another’s company. Remember our need, and why we have come here to stand as one. There is no time for infighting.”

“Well said, Lord Ampophrenon,” Sheyann agreed. “The question remains, then. How can we prevail?”

“I have a plan,” he said gravely. “But it is unconventional, and risky.”

“Your unconventional and risky plans have brought us this far,” said Razeen.

“I have just confirmed that there are two archdemons leading the defense of the Mouth’s fortress,” he continued.

“Three,” the taciturn Huntsman, Torol, interjected unexpectedly. “Arvanzideen is prowling these mountains.”

“Four,” Sheyann corrected in a quiet tone. “We have recently encountered Invazradi as well.”

The dragon nodded. “Four, then. Even better than I had hoped.”

“Better?” Arachne blinked twice. “More archdemons is more good how?”

“It is better,” he said, “because we do have someone on the other side who will shut the Mouth for us. Elilial herself.” He paused to let the murmuring at this subside, and chose to ignore Andior’s sudden delighted grin. “I will ask her politely to cease hostilities and close her portal. And she will agree,” he growled, drawing back his lips to bare rows of glittering fangs, “because she has previously betrayed her only true weakness. If the Dark Lady wishes to see her children again after this day, she will submit to the Light.”

“Ah,” said Arachne, nodding sagely. “So we are all going to die, then.”

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10 – 52

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Home.

Not that it hadn’t been an enlightening and immensely beneficial trip, but he was a creature of the city; walking the streets of Tiraas again was like regaining a part of himself that he had stopped noticing was absent. Even now, strolling placidly through the fairly upper-class Steppe neighborhood in his robes of office, Darling felt more at ease than he could remember in a long time. He’d found the time for a quick jaunt around some of his old haunts as Sweet, but apart from that he’d been largely buried under a backlog of work. Now, on his way to the Cathedral yet again, he’d chosen to go by foot, and to take a long detour that let him see more of the city than was strictly necessary.

It was worth it. Worth it on its own merits, and proved even more so as he discovered when he found himself outside a discreet old brownstone building with a familiar sub-level entrance and a tasteful sign out front. Familiar, though he’d only seen it once.

Darling paused, contemplating this. Well, he’d allotted himself plenty of time to amble, anyway, and it wasn’t as if this place would have been visible to him without very specific reason. A quick glance up and down the street revealed that he was completely alone, itself an odd and suggestive thing considering this hour of the morning.

With a shrug and a smile, he paused only to run a hand over his carefully combed hair, then descended the steps and opened the door to the Elysium.

The bar was just as he remembered: expensive, quiet, and mostly empty. In fact, it was considerably more empty this time, being that he was apparently the only patron. The only other individual present was a swarthy, shaggy-haired man standing behind the bar, idly wiping out a glass with a white rag.

“Top of the mornin’, Antonio!” Eserion called cheerfully, waving to him. “C’mon in, have a seat. Punaji Sunrise, right?”

“Now, now, that’s just to intimidate the party-going set,” Darling said easily, permitting none of the torrent of curiosity he felt near his face or voice. He strolled forward and slid onto a stool near the bartender, but positioned so that he could still see the door. “Generally I prefer a brandy, but c’mon. It’s not even noon. And I’ve got to go wrangle priests today.”

Eserion chuckled obligingly. “Fine, fine, I guess you’ll be wanting to keep your wits intact for that. Hot tea it is, then.”

Despite the lack of any stove or heating element, he produced a steaming pot and deftly poured a cup, which smelled bewitchingly of jasmine and vanilla.

“Oh, my,” Darling mused, lifting the porcelain cup and inhaling deeply. “That’s the good stuff. Smells like the boudoir of the most expensive lady I ever carried on with.”

“They serve this blend down at Marcio’s Bistro,” the god replied lightly, again polishing an already-clean glass. “Have you tried the food there?”

“I have, in fact, at their grand reopening. It tends toward the spicy, doesn’t it? Not necessarily to my taste. But then, that was at the dinner hour, and they were serving wine. I might just pop in every now and again for tea if this is what they have on offer.”

“Give the food a chance,” Eserion said with a mild smile. “It’s more zesty than spicy; not a combination of flavors one gets to sample much in Tiraas these days.”

“Indeed,” Darling said lightly. “I have it on good authority the cuisine there is a pretty good approximation of something no one has seen in eight thousand years or so.”

“Better authority than you may know. How was your trip?”

“Fantastic, thanks. Also…puzzling. I guess it just wouldn’t be fair if I got answers without picking up a dozen more questions along the way.”

“Well.” Eserion winked. “There’s really only one good thing you can do with a question, isn’t there?”

Darling lifted the teacup and took a careful sip, watching him. The god simply gazed back, wearing a disarming smile.

“Why thieves?” he asked at last. “Of all the things you could be patron of. What made you pick…this?”

Eserion’s smile widened momentarily, then he coughed and winked, setting down the glass and rag to fold his arms and lean back against the shelves behind him.

“The truth? The real truth? I’d advise you not to repeat this, Antonio, but… None of this was supposed to happen. The plan was to wreck ascension, not use it. We weren’t trying to turn into gods, all we wanted to do was bring them down. As usual with complex plans, it all went right straight to shit and we had to improvise. And those of us who ended up with godhood? Well, not one of us was prepared for it. A good few weren’t even part of the resistance. Naphthene owned a boat some of us had used; Sorash was a mercenary thug who happened to be nearby. Shaath… Ah, that poor bastard. All he wanted to do was field work, studying the wildlife. We just kept running across him when trying to keep away from civilization and catalog the fauna. He was gettin’ really sick of us by the end, and had the worst possible luck to be on hand when it all went down.” He paused, narrowing his eyes. “Actually…no, I spoke incorrectly. A few of us were prepared. Those who ended up with the greater power, the multiple aspects… We mostly just accidentally latched onto whatever concept spoke most to our hearts. Those four, though. They were ready. They had planned.”

“You think…” Darling frowned, toying with his teacup. “Did they deliberately take ascension, despite your plans?”

“I can’t see it,” Eserion said immediately, shaking his head. “Vidius…maybe. He’s enough of an old fox to think of that, but… Even so, it’s a stretch. But I never met anybody who wanted power less than Omnu or Themynra. And Avei…” He chuckled. “Poor Avei. She was always going on about what she’d do when we could all quit. When the gods were brought down, she was gonna go build a modest little house far from any cities and raise horses. No, they were just planners. Some people, Antonio, are simply heroic by nature. Adventurers born. They were ready for everything, including a rushed, accidental ascension. And thus, they ended up in charge.” He shook his head again. “Better them than me.

“But speaking of me, that’s what you asked about.” He tilted his chin up, smirking faintly. “Might not guess it to look at me now, but standards of beauty being what they were, I was just the prettiest princess of them all, back in the day.”

Darling blinked. “Uh.”

The god cracked a grin at him. “That was the point. I belonged to Szyrein, one of the Elders. In fact, I was one of her favorites. Bred for fifty generations to be beautiful, trained from birth to be…pleasing.”

Despite all his years of practice, Darling could feel the sudden, utter sickness he felt creeping onto his expression. Eserion’s face didn’t change, though, apart from the slightly faraway look that stole into his eyes.

“Your own wits and skills are all you have; they’re all that can’t be taken from you. People with too much power have—have—to be brought down. And at the intersection of those two truths is the fact that no matter how powerful, now supremely above you someone is, you can always find a way to stick to to ’em if you’re clever, and careful. That was who I was, so that’s what I became. Thieves, though?” He grinned. “That was sort of an accident. I guess if you grow up owned by somebody, you end up not giving a shit about property rights.”

“What did happen?” Darling asked.

Eserion’s expression sobered. “Watch yourself around Lil, Sweet. She’s every bit the schemer your research has shown, and more besides. But, like all really good deceivers, she doesn’t lie any more than she can help. You got a warning that you’d be wise to heed: there are things you just aren’t allowed to know. Not without consequences.”

“Am I wrong,” Darling asked casually, holding up his teacup to inhale the fragrance, “or do I get the idea you don’t agree with that policy?”

“Hey, now, I’m not the one making decisions in this outfit. You know how I feel about the people in charge, anyway. Not that I’ve any personal grudge with the Trinity, but… Nobody can be trusted with power. Not any of us; not even me. Power changes people. No matter how careful you are, or how noble your intentions, it twists and destroys you slowly from the inside.”

“Almost makes you wish there was a way to prevent anybody from having it,” Darling mused.

“Yeah, well.” Eserion smirked again. “That would involve somebody with absolute power administering it, which…brings you right back to the beginning. Nah, the best solution I’ve found is to have people whose whole purpose is fighting the power when it rises. It’s a constant struggle, but in the end, isn’t that better?”

“Is it?”

“People always have to struggle,” the god said more seriously, “that’s our greatest virtue. Even our crimes and failures give us things to fight against—and every fight can be a source of strength, and wisdom.”

“It certainly keeps you feeling alive,” Darling mused. “And sometimes, the opposite.”

“Sounds like you’re already getting nostalgic for your vacation,” Eserion said sympathetically. “Herding the cats wearing you down?”

“Oh, you know how it is.” He shrugged and took another sip of tea. “Justinian puts up such a front of being in control I honestly can’t guess how much control he really has. He doesn’t seem fazed by Tellwyrn’s utter destruction of his ploy against her; apparently it was just a test, he claims, to see whether that approach would work, and he’s very satisfied with the results.”

“That kind of inner control can be a weakness or a serious asset,” the god commented.

“Mm. It makes me worry about Tricks; too. I’m starting to see cracks, there, and that’s not like him.” He gave the god a piercing look. “I don’t suppose there’s anything you want to tell me…?”

“Sure, just as soon as you take up his offer to trade jobs again,” Eserion said cheerfully. “Honestly, though, Sweet, I think you’re doing more good where you are.”

“I was just wondering, though,” Darling said mildly, gazing up at the ceiling and pushing his teacup back and forth between his hands. “This thing about transcension fields…”

“Bleh, just say magic, for fuck’s sake. I never understood that gobbledygook and I don’t intend to start. Better for the universe if nobody ever figures out how to do that again.”

“Magic, then. This knowledge the gods have of what people know… The Avatar specifically said that’s processed by the…magic field. And suppose, hypothetically, there were a thing between dimensions, a thing that specifically blocks and disrupts magic. If someone learned something there…”

Eserion’s smile widened fractionally, but he shook his head. “You’re doing so well, Sweet. Don’t spoil it by asking me to cheat for you.”

“You? Cheat?” Darling put on his broadest, most innocent smile. “Perish the thought.”

Mentally, though, he re-categorized that theory from a tentative possibility to an avenue worthy of earnest pursuit.

To judge by the god’s smile, he wasn’t fooling anyone.

Yet.


Branwen’s office in the Grand Cathedral was spacious and elegantly appointed, with a large seating area between the door and her desk. Potted plants stood atop shelves, and in one corner a little decorative fountain splashed musically, its water kept moving and perpetually clean thanks to rare and pricey charms. The fireplace also roared with a comfy blaze—comfy and illusionary, which could add heat to the room or not, at a command. The enchantments in the room had cost more than even the gilded furniture, which was saying something. It was a pleasing space, though, where she could feel relaxed and at home, even away from home.

She was just finishing applying her seal to the last in a stack of correspondence when the door was opened from the outside without the courtesy of a knock.

“Ah, answering fan mail?” Basra asked pleasantly, stepping in and pushing the door gently shut behind her. “How wonderful! It’s a relief to see you’re still getting any. Imagine, a sitting Bishop publicly repudiated by her own goddess! You are a theological marvel, Branwen.”

“Actually,” Branwen said, “I’m told sales of my book have skyrocketed. Apparently nothing sells like notoriety. Not that it isn’t always a pleasure, Bas, but I’ve never known you to make idle social calls before. What can I do for you?”

“I’ve been doing some research,” Basra said, pacing slowly into the room, “into the career of one Ildrin Falaridjad. The downside of my stellar success in the crisis at the border has been a sad lack of damages for which she can be blamed; the list of charges resulting from her stupidity is depressingly short and minor. Of course, I already knew she was a staunch supporter of the Archpope and the Universal Church, to the point it was becoming an annoyance to her fellow Sisters. Interestingly, though, she’s never done anything like that stunt she pulled at Varansis. No insubordination, no outbursts of violence, no rampant glory-hogging or inexplicably having access to other cults’ rare magical devices. Nobody, even, who seemed to find her as congenitally thick-headed as I did. And I had a thought.” She continued forward at a leisurely pace, fixing a predatory stare on Branwen, who simply watched her approach in perfect calm. “Does is perhaps seem suspicious to you that someone would suddenly act contrary to their usual behavior in the presence of a known projective empath?”

“I think it’s telling,” Branwen said mildly, “that you’re talking about a woman acting out of character, and your own constant bullying and abuse of her doesn’t even enter into your calculations.”

“So I did some further digging,” Basra continued, ignoring her. “She has refused to reveal where she got that shatterstone, but Antonio was good enough to get me the rough black market price for one. They are obtainable outside your cult, but it costs more than Falaridjad would make in five years. Someone got it for her, someone with connections in Izara’s faith. And then, there is the matter of how she came to be part of the expedition. You dug her up, specifically, along with a bard who had an established dislike of me due to thinking I’d set her up for the Shaathists.”

“Of course,” Branwen said with a faint smile, “she thought so because you did that. Which also isn’t a consideration to you, I suppose.”

“And,” Basra continued, stepping right up to Branwen and looming over her, “it seems to me that someone as politically adept as yourself would not be oblivious to the fact that having a known Church loyalist involved in that mission could create questions. Concerns about my presence, and intentions. Abbess Darnassy had, in fact, mentioned at the beginning how very convenient it was that a problem arose which so precisely suited my talents to solve. All it would take was the persistent suggestion that Justinian had arranged the whole thing to get me back to Tiraas, and Commander Rouvad would land on me like the fist of Avei herself. And that was before said Justinian loyalist was inexplicably provoked into actively sabotaging the mission.”

Branwen smiled, sighed softly, and shook her head ruefully. “Oh…all right. I suppose I ought to have known better. I’ve made my way chiefly by being a source of happiness to those around me, which is a whole different kind of politics; I’m just not cut out for your flavor of cloak and dagger.”

“Indeed.” Her face cold now, Basra leaned forward, right into her space, planting one hand on the back of Branwen’s chair and the other on the desk to physically bar her into her seat. “I’m only going to tell you this once, Snowe. Do not attempt, nor even dream about attempting any such shit with me again. Ever. You are nothing even approaching a match for me in that arena, and I am not a person you want for an enemy.”

“Oh, Basra, don’t be silly,” Branwen said in a fondly chiding tone, still smiling. “You’re not a person at all.”

For a long moment they locked eyes, the Izarite smiling, the Avenist expressionless. Only the fountain and the fire could be heard in the room.

Finally, Basra tilted her head slowly to one side. “I beg your pardon?” she asked in a tone of mild curiosity.

“You’re a…thing,” Branwen continued, still with that pleasant little smile. “A walking defect. A would-be miscarriage conceived without a soul and quite accidentally brought to term. Oh, I realize you think you’re a wolf among sheep, but that’s only because you lack the mental architecture to understand the strength people gain by forming connections with each other. Something you simply cannot do.”

Moving deliberately, she stood up, pushing herself right back into Basra’s space; the other Bishop backed away at the last second, straightening up and still staring quizzically at the shorter woman.

“Understand, Basra, that you aren’t as invisible as you like to think. Oh, most people don’t realize what a horror you are; most people have no concept that things like you exist. But there are some—Commander Rouvad, his Holiness, Antonio—who do know, and tolerate you because they find you useful. Then, too, there are cultures which understand things that humanity has yet to puzzle out. If you ever find yourself in a dwarven university, you might find it illuminating to read up on what they call ‘social pathology.’”

Branwen took a step forward. Basra, her face an expressionless mask, backed away again.

“Here’s the thing, Bas. You simply do not comprehend how emotion works, because yours are such paltry things. Every feeling you have is shallow and wild, and all of them are variations on either rage…” She smiled, slowly, catlike and sly. “…or desire.”

There was no visible effect in the room, but the change that overcame Basra was instant and striking. Her eyes widened, pupils dilating hugely; she shivered bodily, gave a soft, trembling gasp, and abruptly surged forward. In an instant she had wrapped her arms around Branwen, roughly grasping her head and tilting it up to press a fierce, hungry kiss to her lips.

A moment later she was flung bodily backward by the shield of golden light which flashed into place around the Izarite.

“And once roused,” Branwen continued as if never interrupted, “you have no more control over your passions than does a child. Which is why I didn’t show you rage, and won’t allow you to experience it. At least until I’m done talking to you.”

Turning back to her desk, she pulled open the top drawer and retrieved a small compact; flipping the lid up to reveal a mirror, she took up the small brush contained within and set about repairing the damage done to the rouge on her lips.

Standing six feet away now, Basra absently scrubbed the back of her hand across her mouth, again staring at Branwen without expression.

“Matters are very different for most people,” the Izarite said, tucking the brush back into its slot and beginning to carefully fix her hair with her fingers, still gazing at the tiny mirror. “Emotion is so intertwined with thought as to be inextricable. There are so many kinds of emotions, and so many subtle shades… It’s a whole world you couldn’t begin to comprehend. And for someone like me, who can reach out and touch those vastly complex feelings…” Satisfied, she clicked the compact shut and turned to smile warmly at Basra. “Well, I won’t ask you to believe any claims I make. I shouldn’t need to, after all; you’ve gone and figured out for yourself how wildly out of character Ildrin acted when I needed her to. Instead, Basra, I want you to ponder a hypothetical.”

Branwen set the compact down on her desk and folded her arms beneath her breasts, her smile growing faintly, and becoming lopsided. “What do you suppose would happen if everyone who doesn’t understand you suddenly did… And everyone who tolerates you suddenly didn’t?”

She let that hang for a moment. Basra stared at her in continued silence, her face apparently frozen.

“So,” Branwen said more briskly, “I think you’re right; I’ll be staying away from trying to manipulate events henceforth. It really isn’t my strong suit, is it? Far more sensible to stick to what I can do, and do well.”

Abruptly, her smile faded and her voice hardened. “You are a rabid dog, Basra Syrinx. His Holiness believes he has you on a leash. Despite my misgivings, I have decided to trust his judgment, for now. But if you slip that leash again, like you did with Principia Locke and her squad—oh, yes, I know all about that—it will be the last time. Your entire world will unmake itself. Overnight. And nowhere will you find a hint that I was even involved. So…”

She strode forward, right at the other woman; this time, Basra gave no ground, simply watching her come. Branwen stalked almost close enough that they were touching again, staring up into Basra’s flat gaze, her own blue eyes suddenly ice-hard.

“Heel, girl.”

They stood that way in total silence for long seconds, and then Branwen suddenly smiled, turned away, and stepped toward the door.

Behind her, Basra twitched violently, another rapid change washing over her. Suddenly, her face twisted into an animalistic snarl and she took a half step forward, falling into a fighting crouch, hands outstretched.

“And before you attempt any of the things you’re contemplating,” Branwen added without turning around, “I suggest you consider how much this conversation surprised you, and ask yourself what else you have no idea I’m capable of.”

She opened the door, glanced over her shoulder with a flirtatious little smile, and glided out into the hall, leaving it open behind her.

Basra stood in place, breathing heavily for a few seconds, then whirled and stalked over to Branwen’s desk. There, she snatched up the little mirrored compact and hurled it savagely into the fire.


He was barely aware of where he was walking, having only a sense of veering indiscriminately back and forth; it was a shameful state of affairs for an elf, but nothing in this land would harm him. His inner battle consumed his attention. After all this time, he knew when he’d been beaten. He knew that, despite his intermittent attempts to alter his course, to vanish deeper into the twisted wilds of Athan’Khar, he was steadily making his way west. The spirits were driving west. Despite all his efforts to delay, soon enough he would reach N’Jendo.

And then it would begin, the thing he had tried so, so hard to avoid.

He took some small comfort in knowing that he wouldn’t last long. Eldei alai’shi never lasted long. The Empire had powers that well overmatched him. And there was some small hope, this time; after he had confronted the Avenists at the other border and been turned back, the humans would be ready. Headhunters usually caught them unawares, doing most of their damage before strike teams and battlemages could respond. This time, they’d be prepared.

How many people would he have to watch himself slaughter before they brought him down?

He didn’t even have to avoid thinking about it. These days, it was all he could do to think at all. The voices never let up anymore. He had denied them too long. They were too hungry.

Shadows passed over him.

He only belatedly became aware that he was passing over a rounded hilltop; around its foot were the remnants of an orcish town. The roofless remains of houses and shops now sprouted enormous growths like cancerous cacti thirty feet tall, bristling with person-sized, multi-pronged thorns, and with slowly undulating fronds extending upward toward the sky. The hill itself crunched beneath his ragged moccasins, its surface long ago melted to black glass by some imaginable heat source. Probably something the Tiraan did during the Bane…or maybe caused by one of Athan’Khar’s new residents. There were beings here capable of it.

The shapes cruising over him had excellent timing. He was just cresting the broke-glass hill when they plummeted down from the sky, banking and spreading their wings at the last minute to avoid slamming into the ground as they settled down. They still landed hard enough to shake the earth, which was unavoidable, given their sheer bulk.

Slowly, he turned in a full circle, studying the dragons and not sure what to think. His memories of his old life told him what a very, very odd situation this was. The spirits were mildly inquisitive, but mostly unconcerned. Dragons were no threat to them and of no interest. They really only cared about what they wanted to kill.

Four dragons, though. One of each primary color. Who had ever heard of such a thing?

“Good day,” said the gold in a resonant voice that boomed across the sky. “We must speak.”

“We must…go,” he said nervously, scratching at himself. There were no bugs, bugs did not like him anymore, but he often felt as if things crawled under his skin. “We have… The distance. Yes, have to go. I don’t want to, I’m really so very tired. But…we… Need. At the border, beyond the river, there was, there was, blocked, no use! Found the wisdom but… Other side, yes. There. More of. Um.”

A booming chuckle came from the blue dragon to his left. “This is our guy, then.”

“Peace, Zanzayed,” the gold said in a tone of weary patience.

The green cleared his throat softly—relatively speaking. “Well, it sounds as if you are having some difficulty expressing yourself.” He took one step forward, lowering his head to look at the elf more closely. “I believe I can help with that, temporarily. My name is Varsinostro. Will you indulge me for a moment?”

“Not to harm,” he said noncommittally, scratching his arm. “It’s, it isn’t you. No caring, why bother?”

“I’ll take that, and the lack of an attack, as agreement,” the dragon said with a truly horrifying smile. He reached forward with one enormous clawed hand, which the elf simply watched curiously as it descended on him. He was long past caring about his well-being, and anyway, what he cared about had long ago ceased to be a factor. The spirits were supremely uninterested in the dragons.

That huge hand settled on top of his head in an unbelievably gentle pat, just barely touching his matted hair. The claws curled down on all sides to touch the ground about him.

Suddenly, it was as if a door had been slammed.

The voices…he could still hear them, but distantly and fuzzily, as if underwater. Their constant, howling presence was ended. Suddenly, he was alone in his own head, for the first time in memory.

He staggered, stumbled, sat down hard with a crunch in the broken glass, staring.

“There we go,” the green said with clear satisfaction, withdrawing his hand. “This is purely experimental, understand. To my knowledge, no one has attempted this before. But I am encouraged by this initial success; I believe we can likely refine the method further.”

“You…you made them silent,” he said, tears forming in his eyes. “Thank you. Thank you.”

“I repeat, it will not hold long,” the green warned.

“And,” added the red one from behind him, “they are likely to be irate when they return.”

He doubted that. It really wasn’t the kind of thing the spirits even noticed; they were rarely interested in his perspective. He said nothing about it, though, having just remembered something important.

“Raash,” he whispered. “My name is Raash.”

“It is a pleasure to meet you, Raash,” said the gold one, bowing, which was a very odd sight. “I am Ampophrenon.”

“Please,” Raash said earnestly. “Please, quickly, before they come back. You have to kill me.”

Zanzayed snorted; Ampophrenon and Varsinostro exchanged an unreadable glance.

“Let’s call that Plan B,” said the red, stepping forward and snaking his head around to look down on Raash where he could see him. “First, we are extremely curious about recent events which unfolded at the Viridill border. That was you, correct? I’m assuming there are not two eldei alai’shi active in Athan’Khar at the moment.”

“No,” Raash said slowly, shaking his head. “Not anymore.”

“Anymore?” the blue repeated curiously.

“There was…” He closed his eyes, sighing; in the absence of the spirits’ constant, howling noise, the memory was suddenly more painful than he was expecting. “My brother. He came first, to take the pact. I came to stop him. We have been…struggling, here, for months. I’d thought to destroy myself once he was finally killed, but the spirits would not have it. They…” He paused, swallowed. “I was so close to finding a way, I’d just got them distracted and calm enough I thought I could eat poison. And then something happened at the old border to draw attention. Beings of Athan’Khar went across the river into Viridill, and found a huge Tiraan army massing. It drove the spirits wild. I couldn’t restrain them.”

“It’s very curious,” the red dragon rumbled, “that they were turned back after being reasoned with by one woman.”

Raash barked an incredulous laugh in spite of himself. “Reasoned? Oh, no, nothing like that happened. The Bishop…I remember her. Yes, she was very smart. She avoided most of the early mistakes I made in trying to deal with the spirits. She didn’t reason, she manipulated. She didn’t try to talk to me at all; her discussion was with the spirits, I was just there as an interpreter. I think she must have some experience dealing with the dangerously insane.”

“Hm,” Ampophrenon said thoughtfully. “That answers a few questions. Satisfied, Razzavinax?”

“Not remotely,” the red replied.

Varsinostro cleared his throat. “Anyway. As I said, Raash, I believe we can work to refine this technique, perhaps keep the spirits stifled more permanently. Possibly, though understand that I am in no way promising such a thing yet, purge them entirely. Is this line of study something you would be interested in pursuing?”

Raash could only gaze up at him, tears now coursing down his dirt-stained face. “I…I’d given up thinking… All I’d hoped for was death.”

“I will not deceive you,” the dragon said sternly. “It may yet come to that. But if you are willing to make the effort, as am I.”

“As are we all,” Ampophrenon said firmly.

Suddenly too overcome to form words, he could only nod.

“Smashing,” Zanzayed said cheerfully, leaning closer. “That being the case, our new pals back in Tiraas are rather curious about these events. And they may have instigated this little sit-down, but we have our own reasons for wanting to know more. In exchange for our help, Raash, we have questions.”

“Many,” added Razzavinax. “Many questions.”

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9 – 37

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“It’s a standard strategy,” Vex explained, folding his hands on the table in front of him. Only he and Zanzayed had seated themselves; the rest stood around the rim of the conference room, with Squad One clustered against the wall opposite Vex. He, of course, sat at the table’s head. “In fact, this particular ploy deserves a great deal of credit for the Tirasian Dynasty’s reconstruction of the Empire in an era when anti-Imperial sentiment was rampant. Resistance movements and terrorist organizations exist even today, and Imperial Intelligence has a hand in all of them. We started a good many, wherever there lay a dangerous degree of citizen unease with no outlet. For the rest, we are the primary provider of funding. Obviously, they are all unaware of this.”

“Why the dragons?” Principia asked. “Surely they had little to fear from general dislike to begin with.”

Vex glanced at Ampophrenon, a clear invitation to speak. The dragon nodded to him before turning to Principia. “It is not that we feared for our own welfare. Our kind have always been rather unpopular among many peoples—I fear, not without reason. One of the Conclave’s aims is to remedy this, but that will likely be the work of generations. What we wished to ward off was an organized movement that would damage that work. Normalizing relations would be much more difficult with substantial public opposition in place.”

“And it is not the Empire’s policy to squash protest movements,” Vex added. “The temptation to do so has brought down many a kingdom; one can only repress the people’s will for so long. The Empire prefers more elegant methods of managing its citizens.”

“You’re being remarkably forthright,” Casey observed, eyes narrowed.

Vex smiled languidly; he seemed almost half-asleep. “The facts of Imperial strategy and tactics aren’t classified. Some of the details of these specific events are, of course, but it’s known, generally, how we do things. What have we to fear from exposure? Whatever its aims, the Empire’s policies result in a public that can generally do what they like. Oddly, they rarely seem to object.”

“The handling of this concern,” Ampophrenon went on, “was an early sticking point in our negotiations with the Empire. Rather than dwell upon it, we mutually decided that making a joint operation would help bind us together, and hopefully smooth over further points of difficulty.” He cast an unreadable look at Zanzayed, who grinned. “Thus, this has all turned out to be a rather more elaborate operation than, frankly, it strictly needed to be. More than half the point was to have the Conclave and the Empire working closely together. After seeing the number of people interested in joining this movement, however, I begin to worry we have created a problem where one did not exist.”

“The method is one we borrowed from the Black Wreath, Lord Ampophrenon,” the marshal said. Her outfit was still rather theatrical, with its black leather and red corset, but without the grisly wing-cloak and skull mask she was otherwise a much less impressive-looking woman, younger than middle age and with the dark hair and tilted eyes common to Sifan. “A wide net of recruitment brings in any remotely interested parties, most of whom want little more than to feel subversive. That attitude is particularly common among the wealthier classes. From there, we carefully weed out the truly motivated for more specific tasks, and a higher degree of trust. It’s a very effective strategy; there’s a reason the Wreath has relied on it for centuries.”

“Allow me to interrupt this self-congratulatory back-patting,” said Zanzayed. “The fact is I blatantly misused my rather tenuous connection to you, Principia, to make you a peripheral cog in this machine. You have my sincere apologies.”

“Only because you’re afraid of the Crow,” Principia said smugly.

His faint smile vanished. “I am not afraid of the Crow,” Zanzayed said testily. “I would rather not have another drawn-out exchange with her, though. Those are time-consuming and costly. In any case, you were never supposed to be in any danger. All of this was quite carefully planned; shining a bright light on you was merely a recruitment method to help us identify anybody who took the bait as a potential target. It was our assumption that a Legion-trained veteran Guild thief could deftly handle any such annoyances; we went to great lengths to keep you out of any real danger.”

“Which brings us to an extremely pertinent point on which I require information,” said Vex, steepling his fingers in front of his face. “We went to considerable trouble to have you and the Guild investigating a harmless gathering far from this fortress. And yet, here you are, and I confess I am without a clue as to how you learned of this. We have reliable reports placing your squad and a group of Guild enforcers en route to your intended target. What are you doing here, Sergeant Locke?”

Principia raised an eyebrow. “I already explained that to your agent, here.”

Vex turned his head, fixing the Marshal with an inquisitive look.

She cleared her throat. “Locke claimed to have been sent here by Vesk, sir.”

Vex simply looked back at Principia, showing no reaction to that news. “Interesting. That is the story you intend to stick with?”

“Believe what suits you,” she said with a shrug. “It’s possible it wasn’t Vesk, but a man matching his description materialized out of nowhere with none of the usual hallmarks of arcane or infernal rapid transit, possessing information there is—you yourself claim—no realistic way he could have, not to mention an aura which was absolutely blinding at that proximity. You probably already know this, but they don’t reveal their auras to elves unless they specifically wish to be recognized. If it wasn’t Vesk, it was another god masquerading as him, which… For our purposes and probably yours, comes out to the same thing.”

“Hmm,” Vex mused. “Lord Ampophrenon, I believe you are the resident expert on the gods. Have you any idea why he would take an interest in this matter?”

“With Lord Vesk, it is even more than usually difficult to say,” the dragon replied with a thoughtful frown. “He is capable of acting toward specific ends through quite elaborate means, just as they all are. There are records of him having done so. On the other hand, he also tends to intervene just because he thinks the outcome thus modified will make for a better story.” He glanced apologetically at Squad One. “If we consider Sergeant Locke and her troops as the likely protagonists here, that would seem to be the case. As I’m sure you can guess, those two motives provide excellent cover for each other. Vesk is a trickster god and less predictable in his motivations than even gods in general. It is an open question. I doubt that another deity would impersonate him, though. Only Elilial would show such disrespect, and I rather think she would find the prospect extremely insulting.”

Vex heaved a sigh. “Well…such is the world. All blasphemy aside, it seems sometimes that the gods only step in when they see a chance to cause more trouble.”

“Sounds like a fair observation to me,” Zanzayed said cheerfully. “Don’t make that face, Puff, it’ll freeze that way.”

“And so you set Saduko up to misdirect the Guild and the Sisterhood,” said Principia. “Exactly how many cults are you trying to antagonize?”

“I can only offer you my inadequate apologies, ladies,” Ampophrenon said, bowing. “We really did attempt to prevent you from being in a dangerous position. Lord Vesk’s intervention was unforeseeable.”

“Do you have some connection to Saduko, Marshal?” Farah inquired.

The marshal raised one eyebrow. “Right. By your apparent reasoning, Privates Avelea and Elwick must be long-lost sisters, being both of apparently Stalweiss descent.”

Farah flushed slightly. “I didn’t mean it like that. Was just a thought…”

“I am an Imperial citizen, born and raised,” the marshal said flatly. “And for your edification, my ancestors were Sheng, not Sifanese.”

“Anyway,” Farah said hastily, “if you weren’t expecting us to be there, how were you planning to bluff your followers? It looked a lot like you were actually trying to kill us.”

A grim silence fell over the room. The marshal stared expressionlessly at Farah.

“Because,” Farah said more hesitantly, “I mean, surely an Imperial agent wouldn’t—”

“Presented with an unforeseen situation with no good outcome,” Vex interrupted, “an Imperial agent keeps her eye on the broader situation and acts to complete her mission. Sometimes, our work necessitates extremely regrettable actions.”

“I believe I was clear on the subject of Locke and her crew being harmed,” Zanzayed remarked in a deceptively mild tone. “It’s fortunate they had a few surprises of their own handy, or you might have found your definition of ‘regrettable’ expanded.”

“While I am certain that you know your business, Lord Vex,” Ampophrenon added, “our honor was at stake in this matter as well. The Conclave would prefer that your agents remember to keep that in consideration when acting on any joint operation, henceforth.”

“I will definitely make a point of that to all operatives involved in Conclave-relevant assignments,” Vex said politely. “I am, of course, very grateful for your timely intervention; you seem to have saved us all a great deal of unpleasantness.”

“Some more than others,” Merry said coldly.

“Quite,” Vex replied, watching the squad through half-lidded eyes. “And you have my apologies as well, ladies. To reiterate, we did make a substantial effort to avoid placing you in harm’s way, but nonetheless, it is regrettable that your involvement put you at risk. Obviously, the Tiraan Empire wishes no harm to the Silver Legions.”

“Oh, obviously,” Principia said wryly.

“I must emphasize, Sergeant, ladies,” Vex replied in a subtly firmer tone, “that you are all Imperial citizens, and thus have a duty to the Silver Throne. You have my word that I shall personally see to arranging remuneration for your hardships. All these affairs, however, are strictly classified.”

“Noted,” said Principia in perfect calm. “I will be sure to include that in my report to the High Commander.”

Vex cleared his throat. “Perhaps you don’t take my meaning, Sergeant Locke…”

“Oh, I understand you just fine. I’m pretty good with subtext.”

“You wouldn’t dare,” Casey said, barely above a whisper.

“I thought we’d already established that the unpleasantness was at an end?” said Zanzayed mildly.

“I’m sure you understand the necessity of security in this matter, Lord Zanzayed,” Vex replied, his eyes still on Principia. “With all respect, I would suggest that you speak with Lord Razzavinax before deciding on any courses of action.”

“I think you’d better think carefully about courses of action, Lord Vex,” Casey said sharply. “You’re not just dealing with the Sisters of Avei, here. Locke is still a member in good standing of the Thieves’ Guild. You know what they do to—”

“Elwick, enough,” Principia said quietly.

The marshal smiled sardonically. “I can’t possibly emphasize enough that Imperial Intelligence is not afraid of the Thieves’ Guild.”

“Marshal,” Vex said sharply, and she fell silent. “Sergeant, there is no need for this hostile tone. Rather than exchanging threats, let’s see if we can reach a middle ground.”

“No, I think I’m pretty content exchanging threats, my lord,” Principia said calmly. “Bargaining is an action for people in a weaker position.”

“Ah, yes,” Vex said with a very faint smile. “Your sense of humor is all part of your legend. You are in Tiraas, Locke. Even on the other side of the planet you would not be beyond the reach of Imperial Intelligence. We are merely asking for a little consideration and respect—”

“Such as your agent showed by attempting to murder us,” Principia replied. “I am giving you considerably kinder treatment in return. Keeping secrets from my chain of command is not on the table. Zanzayed!” she said more loudly when Vex opened his mouth again. “What was it you wanted to talk to me about?”

The blue dragon raised an eyebrow. “Really, Prin? You want to chat now? Anyway, I thought we’d established that the matter was a ruse.”

“Sure,” she said equably, “but considering your goal was drawing attention to me and publicly making a connection, the ideal result was if I had agreed to a sit-down, and thus you’d have been prepared with a story if I went for it. You said it was family business, yes? I’ve been turning over and over in my mind just what business you could possibly have with my family, and all I can come up with is your several well-documented brawls with Mary the Crow.”

“She really is the most disagreeable person,” Zanzayed complained to Ampophrenon. “You have no idea.”

“I have met her,” the gold replied mildly. “I found her rather personable, in fact.”

“But beat-downs like that are rather out of character for her,” Principia continued, glancing at Vex, who remained silent. “Against someone like a dragon? If the Crow really considered you an enemy, she’d have carefully arranged for you to be dead, not torn up half the countryside boxing your scaly ears. Three times, that I know of. That is more like what she does with members of the bloodline who…disappoint her.”

“So we can assume she’s boxed your ears a time or two?” Merry suggested.

“The Crow doesn’t play too roughly with family who are too fragile for one of her legendary beatings,” Principia replied, glancing at her. “You asked me once, Lang, why I never pursued true mastery of arcane magic? That’s why. The more I think about this, though, the more I realize the only thing that would surprise me is if one of my aunts or grandmothers hadn’t carried on with a dragon at some point. A lot of them have done weirder things by far. So, Lord Vex, I do believe if you intended to threaten harm to me or anyone under my protection, you have placed yourself in a small room with the wrong dragon. Isn’t that right, cousin?” she asked Zanzayed.

He sighed. “Damn it, that was going to be my big reveal. Has anyone ever told you you suck the fun out of everything, Prin?”

“Nonsense, I am a non-stop barrel of laughs. At least, with people who aren’t involved in plots to murder me.”

“Regardless,” Zanzayed stated in a bored tone, “yes, she’s quite right. I feel the need to take this matter somewhat personally.”

“Zanzayed speaks not only for himself,” Ampophrenon added. “A dragon’s kin are considered sacred to all of us. The Conclave would take exception to any harm brought on Principia by the Empire.”

“You really shouldn’t stir up the Crowbloods anyway,” said Zanzayed with a grimace. “The only reason anybody gets any peace is they mostly don’t like each other, and they all have grudges with the Crow herself. You get two or more pointed in the same direction and you’re about to have a very bad day. Take it from someone who knows firsthand.”

“This is very fascinating information,” Vex said with a calm smile. “I would very much prefer to have known some of it before agreeing to involve Locke in this operation in the first place.”

“Family business is none of yours,” Zanzayed replied with a toothy grin.

“I hope we can consider the issue resolved now?” Ampophrenon asked. “To make our position unequivocally clear, it is not reasonable to suggest that Principia Locke or her troops should try to conceal these events from the Sisterhood of Avei. Any reprisal against them for making a full report will damage the Empire’s relationship with the Conclave of the Winds.”

“What he means,” said Zanzayed, his smile widening alarmingly, “is that Eleanora will be tetchy after I have personally dropped you in the center of the ocean.”

“Zanzayed,” Ampophrenon said reprovingly.

“I have told you over and over, Puff, that it’s necessary to be polite and considerate of mortals if you mean to get on their good side. Which is true. The other half of that equation, though, is that it tends to make some of them forget they are addressing a being who can unmake their entire world with a sneeze. Once in a while, a gentle reminder is constructive.”

“Well, it sounds like you lads have things to discuss,” Principia said. “We’ll be going, then.” Shouldering her lance, she turned and strode past her squad to the conference room’s nearest door.

“I’ll be in touch, cuz!” Zanzayed said brightly, waving from his chair. “Since we’re both living in town now, we’ve gotta get together!”

“Ugh,” she muttered, pulling the door open and stepping through. The squad filed out after her, Farah shutting it behind and sealing in the remainder of Lord Vex’s conversation with the dragons.

Soldiers were about in the fortress as if nothing had ever happened; they were walking, chatting, cleaning, standing guard and doing all the things troops on duty in a boring position in peacetime tended to do. Nothing about the scene was unfamiliar or eerie to Squad One. The Imperial troops gave them curious looks, several respectful greetings and even a salute or two, but they were not stopped. There was nowhere the merest hint that this vital fortification had been completely deserted an hour ago.

They kept quiet until they had descended from the upper conference room to the ground floor and finally emerged into the street. The fog was lifting, though the sky remained overcast, and Tiraas was altogether livelier and brighter than when they had come this way in the first place.

“I can’t believe you tried to arrest them,” Merry said once they were a block distant from the gates. “Did you really think that would work?”

“Of course not,” Principia said without breaking stride.

“Why do it, then?” Ephanie asked. “All due respect, Sarge, trying to assert authority you don’t have just makes you look weak.”

Principia’s eyes darted swiftly about, taking in the nearby scenery without betraying her glance with a move of the head. It was still early in the day, and they weren’t drawing much attention. Still, she turned sharply, taking them off the city’s central avenue and down a quieter side street before answering in a low tone.

“Because a god was involved. Where one is working, it’s a virtual guarantee that others are at least paying attention. I’ve been a faithful servant of Eserion for longer than you four have collectively been alive. I’ve also had no shortage of brushes with Avei—not personally, but I’ve had my hands on a number of sacred objects and rubbed shoulders with her priestesses. I’ve more recent reason to believe she is aware of me. More to the point, girls, those specific two gods, the ones with the greatest likelihood of noticing what was happening here, were the ones most likely to take an interest. Here we have powerful men behind locked doors abusing people for their own benefit. I gave them the chance to submit to justice, and they blew me off. If Eserion or Avei were paying attention, they are now pissed.” She finally glanced back at the others, all of whom were watching her raptly. “If I’m going to have the Conclave of the Winds and Imperial goddamn Intelligence batting at my tail, I would rather have deities take an interest in teaching them humility than have to deal with it myself.”

“Do you think that’ll work?” Farah asked.

Principia shrugged. “You never can tell with gods. It was worth the attempt, anyway.”

“You didn’t invoke Avei’s name,” Casey pointed out. “Wouldn’t that have helped?”

“A sergeant in the Silver Legions doesn’t have that right,” said Ephanie. “It takes more than a little rank in the actual clergy to speak on Avei’s behalf. If the goddess was watching, she would have been offended at the presumption. That’s taking her name in vain.”

“What’s done is done,” Principia said. “Keep the pace up, ladies; I have a feeling our next appointment is going to be even less fun than the last one.”


 

Commander Rouvad paced slowly along the length of the table that had been set up in the underground gymnasium Squad One had used to practice, examining the armor and weapons laid out upon it. Off to one side stood Captain Dijanerad, her expression grim, and a much more serene Bishop Shahai. Also present was General Tagheved, the commander of the Third Legion. A silver-haired woman whose frame was corded with muscle and not diminished in the slightest by age, she watched the proceedings with an unreadable expression.

Squad One stood at a respectful distance, at attention. They were still in full armor, with the exception of Principia, who was dressed only in her white regulation tunic and trousers. It was her armor currently laid out for examination.

“Shielding charms,” Commander Rouvad said at last, reaching out to slide a fingertip along Principia’s breastplate. “Do you know why the Army doesn’t rely on them, Sergeant Locke?”

“For three reasons, Commander,” Principia said crisply. “Because it is always better policy to avoid spellfire than to try to repel it, because Imperial infantry prioritizes mobility above defense, and because the portable charms they are able to carry are serviceable against wandfire but unable to stand up to heavier weapons, like staves. Large metallic objects hold enchantments much better than light uniforms, and armor takes defensive charms very well due to sympathetic principles.”

“Mm,” Rouvad mused, slowly rounding the head of the table and pacing down its other side, her eyes still on its contents. “What other augmentations did you make?”

“Silencing and tracking concealment charms on the boots,” Principia reported. “Much heavier defensive charms on the shields, including a feature whereby the phalanx’s shields magnetically lock together to share a single defensive barrier. They are also equipped to disperse incoming magical energy into the ground, which requires a sizable metallic apparatus to function. This wasn’t tested today, but if it works it should enable a squad to stand up to much heavier fire at the cost of mobility. Charms on the helmet enhance night vision while protecting the wearer from excessive light and sound.”

“Risky,” Tagheved grunted. “You impede your senses in battle, you die.”

Principia stood silently at attention. Rouvad finally raised her head to glance at her.

“Answer her, Sergeant.”

“Yes, ma’am. Modern enchanting is much more precise than that, ma’am. The light-filtering charms are specifically designed to keep a soldier’s visibility at optimum level; it is resistant to flares and improves vision in darkness. I wasn’t able to work it to penetrate smoke, but I’m confident that is achievable. The sonic dampener only activates at a level of sound which is injurious to hearing; in the presence of such noise, soldiers would communicate by hand signals anyway.”

“Mm,” Taghaved said noncommittally.

The High Commander picked up Principia’s lance and held it to the light, peering at the subtly positioned switch on the haft.

“Will this thing fire if I press the button, Locke?”

“Negative, ma’am. That switch releases the firing mechanism. It can’t fire until you’ve pressed the button.”

Rouvad did so, and a narrow vertical slice of the shaft slid inward, a staff-sized clicker mechanism sliding out in its place. At the same time, the spearhead parted down the center, revealing the firing crystal.

“This would have to be partially hollow, then,” Rouvad mused. “That would seriously impair the structural strength of your weapon. Right?”

“Negative, ma’am. It is designed like a standard battlestaff, which means a hollow core of alchemically augmented metal to hold the engravements channeling the firing charge. It’s actually stronger than our steel-cored wooden lances.”

The Commander tilted the lance, studying the parted spearhead. “You can’t tell me this doesn’t utterly gut the physical integrity of the blade.”

“Correct, ma’am. The blade is enchanted to compensate, but that is sub-optimal. It’s a basic rule of enchantment not to do through magic what is more easily done physically. The use of a crystal firing surface is also not ideal; they burn and crack after prolonged use. That weapon is a prototype; it has substantial room for improvement. I was working on a tight schedule.”

“Incredible,” Rouvad murmured, poking at the base of the parted spearhead with a fingertip. “I can’t even see the hinges. I didn’t know you were a metalsmith on top of your numerous other talents, Locke.”

“The physical design was done by a Svennish engineer working in the city, ma’am. He has thoughts on how to improve it, but again… I had to rush them into service.”

“And I press the button again to return it to spear form?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

Rouvad thumbed the release, and the clicker slid back into the haft, the spearhead snapping back together. “Awfully close to the clicker when it’s out. In a combat situation you could accidentally disarm your weapon.”

“Yes, ma’am, I noticed that. I plan to rotate the release switch forty-five degrees along the haft and position it several inches forward to reduce that risk. In the next iteration.”

“Why,” Rouvad asked, carefully setting the lance down, “did you feel the need to do this, Locke?”

Principia hesitated, glancing over at the other officers present. Shahai and Tagheved remained impassive, but Dijanerad scowled at her. “Permission to speak freely, Commander?”

“Oh, this should be absolutely priceless,” Rouvad said with a heavy sigh. “Permission granted.”

“Ma’am, the Silver Legions are totally unprepared for combat in this century. We are coasting on the goodwill of the Tiraan Empire and the historically naïve presumption that large-scale military resistance to Avei’s aims will never be faced again. Right now, one for one, any Tiraan and most other military organizations would obliterate a Silver Legion unit of corresponding size in any open confrontation. We are not trained, equipped or prepared for combat with energy weapons. We aren’t prepared to contend with teleporting battlemages, zeppelin air support, mag artillery or tactical scrying. We have nothing that could even begin to stand up to an Imperial strike team, with the possible exception of a Hand of Avei—and frankly the nature of strike teams makes them powerful counters to any magic user, no matter how potent. Commander, if the Silver Legions go to war—any war—as we are, we will be utterly destroyed.”

Deafening silence weighed on the room.

“And of course,” Rouvad said finally, “you believe you are the only person in all of Avei’s legions to have thought of any of this, Sergeant Locke.”

Again, Principia hesitated. “With the greatest respect, High Commander, I have been aware of the Silver Legions longer than you have been alive. They have not changed in that time. What anyone has thought is unknown to me; I only see that nothing has been done.”

“Right,” Rouvad said in a dangerously soft tone. “Because from the exalted rank of sergeant, you are positioned to see everything being done in every Legion on every continent.”

Principia remained silent.

“You enabled her to do this, Shahai?” Rouvad said, turning to stare at the Bishop.

“I arranged this space in which Sergeant Locke could drill her squad,” Shahai said in perfect equanimity. “I was unaware of the specifics of her plans, though I guessed the general sense of it. In hindsight, I stand by that decision. This is good work. A good start, at least.”

“A good start undertaken without authorization, without her commanding officer even knowing of it,” Rouvad grated.

“Remind me, Nandi,” Dijanerad said flatly. “When did I interfere in the running of your command?”

“Enough, Captain,” General Tagheved said.

“I’m sorry if you felt stepped upon, Shahdi,” Shahai replied calmly. “I was given provisional authority over this squad for the duration of my mission. I judged this to be mission-relevant. Indeed, it appears to have saved their lives during the course of this duty. Not only have we not lost five valuable soldiers today, but they have come home with extremely pertinent intelligence.” She gave Rouvad a pointed look.

“I don’t know how many times it is worth bothering to lecture you about the chain of command, Locke,” Rouvad grated. “You do not just run off and do things. You are a sergeant; your decision-making prerogatives are specific and limited, and have been thoroughly explained to you. Major undertakings such as this are to go through the chain of command. You have no idea what is happening at the level above you—any of those numerous levels! Running off to completely alter your squad’s method of operation without your commanding officer’s consent or even knowledge could get good women killed in a crisis.”

“Understood, ma’am.”

“No, Locke,” Rouvad said, and suddenly her tone was purely weary. “You don’t understand. I can go on and on about it, but you’ll only ever think of authority as something you have to circumvent. You are such an utter Eserite at heart… Well, despite what you persist in believing, in the military it is not easier to seek forgiveness than permission. The difference is you might get permission.”

She picked up the lance again, tapping its point against the table. “This is good work, Locke. If you had come up with a proposal for this, I would have cleared it. Your squad’s whole purpose is to explore new methods of operation for the Legions. I would have funded it! And now, since you can’t seem to demonstrate your competence without undercutting your credibility, I have to drag the source of one of the most promising developments I’ve seen in years over the coals before you go down in flames and take your entire squad down with you!”

“What you need to do,” Shahai said calmly, “is give Locke a slap on the wrist and a pat on the head. And then a research budget.”

“I didn’t ask your opinion, Captain Shahai,” Rouvad snapped.

“You’re getting it for free,” Shahai replied. “You badly need to stop trying to browbeat these women into place, Farzida.”

The High Commander rounded on her. “You will not speak to me in that manner in front of soldiers I am in the process of disciplining!”

“Or what?” the Bishop shot back, a sharp edge to her own voice now. “You’ll fire me? Do it, Farzida. I have plenty of hobbies I can pursue until the next High Commander realizes I’m too valuable to leave collecting dust in Viridill. You brought me into this to serve as a liason, to be a calmer voice where you can’t afford to; well, that is exactly what I am doing.

“Soldiers fight and die for each other. You know this. They’ll do the same for a commander who is one of them. Respect is earned, not commanded; you know that as well as any soldier and better than many. Have you thought at all about this squad’s experience in the Legions and how it would affect them? They have been singled out, persecuted, forced to circumvent the chain of command to ensure their very survival, and finally had to watch as the quite frankly unhinged agent who did all this to them was given a pittance of punishment and a promise that she will be back! And now you upbraid them for assuming their officers can’t be trusted? Honestly, Farzida, would you trust you?

“The problem,” she went on fervently, “is that you have to be the Commander with them. They don’t have the privilege of seeing how you agonize over this, how you grieve for soldiers under your command mistreated by others, how it grinds on you having to keep a creature like Basra Syrinx on the rolls because her particular brand of viciousness is something we can’t function without in this tangled modern world. What makes you such a good leader, Farzida—one of the things—is that you hurt the same as your troops hurt, whenever they do. But these women here have never seen that. You’ve never let them; I understand why you cannot afford to. You’ve shown them a cold bureaucrat who seems bent on getting them killed.

“Each of these women are in this Legion because they have nowhere else to go. Well, the Legion has formed them into a unit. Now we badly need to make them understand that they need the Legion as much as the Legion needs them before they start to realize that as a unit, they could go anywhere, do anything they like, and handle anything thrown at them. Because we do need them. Badly. You know and I know how right Locke is; we’re in no way prepared for what we all know will have to come eventually. Right here are represented the talents and the mindset that can help bring the Legions and the Sisterhood forward and ensure our very survival.

“You and Locke have got to start respecting each other on a personal level, and if that’s not good for the chain of command, so be it. For the goddess’s sake, you two would get along swimmingly if you didn’t have so bloody much in common!”

Captain Dijanerad looked shocked by the time Shahai’s speech came to an end, but General Tagheved only watched the elf with an expression of mild amusement. Rouvad stared at her, utterly blank-faced.

The silence stretched out, and none of Squad One dared disturb it with so much as an injudicious breath.

“Sergeant Locke,” the High Commander said suddenly, turning to stare at her. “You will personally scrub every inch of your cabin with your own two hands until it is in new condition. The rest of your squad, since not a one of them had the thought to go over your head when you decided to spit on the chain of command, can do the same with your cohort’s parade ground. Quit doing crap like this, Principia. I have all my future gray hairs carefully planned and have none to waste on you. And…” She set down the lance. “This is damn fine work, Locke. Starting tomorrow, I want you to submit material and budgetary estimates to Captain Dijanerad for the continuation of this research. Squad Three Nine One will continue to have access to this facility for drilling; your mission statement is now expanded to include research and development of modern weaponry and defenses suitable for incorporation into Silver Legion equipment and the necessary techniques to use them.”

She paused, glanced around at all the women present, then sighed and shook her head. “And now I have to go contend with the Thieves’ Guild and Imperial Intelligence. Fortunately, I’ll probably have the Guild on my side for this, disconcerting as that is. General, if you’ve anything further to say to this lot, they’re all yours.”

The High Commander turned and strode off toward the far door, leaving them behind.

General Tagheved watched her go, then turned a contemplative expression on Squad One.

“You’re a poor excuse for a soldier, Locke,” she said thoughtfully. “But you’re the kind of poor soldier who sometimes makes a priceless officer in tumultuous times. You watch your step. Dismissed, ladies.”

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