“It went very well,” the newly re-minted Bishop Shahai assured her quietly, smiling.
“It’s kind of a blur,” Trissiny admitted, having to restrain herself from rubbing her hands against herself. At least the uniform gauntlets ensured no one could tell her palms were still sweaty. “I hate public speaking. Goddess, send me more demons instead…”
“More and more, politics is the arena of modern warfare,” said the elf. “No disrespect, Trissiny, but perhaps you should be glad you have a knack for making speeches and make peace with the need.”
At that voice, they both looked up at the still-chattering scrum of reporters being held behind the line of Silver Legionnaires in the Temple’s main sanctuary. He was not the only person calling Trissiny’s name, as many of the journalists were still trying to get her or Shahai’s attention, but that voice out of them all cut straight through the noise. He did much the same physically, striding forward with a courteous nod to the Legionnaires—who, despite orders, instinctively shifted to let him through.
You just didn’t argue the right of way with a dragon.
“Lord Ampophrenon?” Trissiny asked in surprise.
Ampophrenon the Gold strode up to her and Shahai and inclined his head respectfully to each of them. “General, Bishop. Congratulations on your day’s work. I am truly sorry to so abruptly impose myself on Avenist business, especially at a time like this, but I fear the need is urgent. General Avelea, have you received a personal summons from Avei recently?”
“I haven’t…” She paused, narrowing her eyes. “What’s this about?”
Ampophrenon was already standing with his back to the reporters, and at that made a quick gesture with one hand. A shimmering rose in the air behind him like a heat mirage and the sound of voices cut off.
“I dare to hope that I will owe you an apology for wasting your time, General, but if not, you and your two counterparts may be urgently needed. The Conclave has had advance warning that a chaos event may be unfolding, or about to. And,” he added with a piercing glance at Shahai, “the specific timing rouses…suspicions.”
“Chaos event,” Shahai murmured, narrowing her own eyes. “He…would, wouldn’t he? If we presume his hand was behind the events at Ninkabi…”
“And at Veilgrad,” said Ampophrenon. “The evidence that he was involved with the skull of Belosiphon is all but conclusive. By the General’s own account, it is now in his possession.” The dragon paused, turning his attention on Trissiny, who had closed her eyes in an expression of concentration.
She opened them not two seconds later, her face going pale. “Veilgrad. Again.”
Ampophenon drew in a breath. “Curse that man’s remorseless ambition. That was at the goddess’s warning, I take it?”
“I had to ask directly, but yes. If she didn’t reach out to me first, it may not be as serious as it could.”
“There is that,” he agreed, “but such things must never be taken lightly. We cannot afford to risk teleportation to or near a chaos event, but I can still provide quick transportation there, for you and the other paladins.”
“Hopefully their gods will have warned them as well,” she said quickly. “I appreciate your aid, Lord Ampophrenon. Nandi…?”
“You go do what you do best, Trissiny,” the Bishop answered. “Goddess be with you. I’m going to summon Elwick and the squad. If Justinian has been forced by your maneuver to act in haste, he may have made a mistake upon which we can capitalize. Let me worry about the politics for now.”
Trissiny nodded, then grimaced. “And let that teach me to be careful what I pray for.”
“Hunter’s Quarter reports civilian evac is complete!”
“Squad C is in position, sir. Squad D moving up. The bait squad is standing by.”
“Colonel! Quartermaster reports there’s enough raw flashpowder in that fireworks depot to assemble enough explosive bolts for a full volley from the crossbows we’ve got on hand. He’s proceeding with the construction.”
“Good,” Adjavegh grunted without taking his eyes from their ceaseless scan of the windows. “Make sure his entire department is on it, Timms. There are no other priorities.”
A shadow fell over the command center and most of those present reflexively crouched down. It passed, though, and seconds later the skeletal dragon set down on another rooftop halfway across the city. Colonel Adjavegh alone had not moved, standing at parade rest in the center of the activity around him, eyes on the enemy. It was simple bravado, perhaps, but it mattered to the men and women under his command to see their leader focused and calm in the face of absolute, literal chaos.
Veilgrad’s Army barracks had its command center in a squat, square chamber on its roof, below only the watchtowers. All four walls had tall windows interspersed with thick stone columns—an addition constructed well after the Enchanter Wars, but in the age of mag cannons stone walls were of little use and the commanding view over the city and its surroundings was of more utility, especially at a time like this. Even so, the windows of course were heavily enchanted. Right now, several of them had soldiers with spyglasses keeping a constant watch on the beast currently terrorizing the city, while the command center itself roiled with messengers keeping Adjavegh appraised of all unfolding developments and conveying his orders.
“Sir!” His aide, Sergeant Timms, darted to his side bearing a sheet of paper she’d just taken from another such messenger. “A response from ImCom!”
“Finally,” Adjavegh grunted, snatching it from her. “I’m glad this is more interesting than the fresh gossip in the capital—what in the hell?”
“It’s pretty garbled, sir.”
“I can see that it’s garbled, Sergeant!”
“It was transcribed faithfully, sir. This came via telescroll, like our initial report to ImCom.” She craned her neck over his shoulder to study the page, which was a mishmash of letters strung together in an order that only formed words about half the time. “The scrolltower transmissions were probably scrambled by the chaos effect, Colonel. See, this looks like a request for clarification. The message they got from us was probably just as mangled.”
“If that’s the case…” Adjavegh hesitated a moment, squinting at the message, then raised his voice to a battlefield roar. “I want a full emergency shutdown on the Rail stations, now!”
“Sir,” replied a lieutenant, “the Rails immediately stopped running when—”
“The emergency shutdown, son! Get on it!”
“Yes, sir!” The man snapped off a salute and dashed for the stairs. The Rail stations in cities as large as Veilgrad were capable of launching a shutdown signal through the physical Rails themselves that would effectively disable the entire network, Empire-wide. It could be re-activated from Tiraas, but that would let Imperial Command know there was a crisis here, if they couldn’t communicate directly. To Adjavegh’s knowledge, the emergency shutdown had never been used, even during the Battle of Ninkabi. Its implied message was that the city sending it was under conditions too dangerous to approach.
They had worked out very quickly that the dragon was a chaos beast, when it had come under immediate attack from both the city’s formal defenders and several magic-wielding civilians. That had gone disastrously; Adjavegh had lost four squads of soldiers in the first five minutes, and who knew how many citizens who’d rallied to the defense. But with that bitter lesson had also come the insight that conventional lightning weapons did damage the beast, so long as they were fired from beyond point blank range. Once past the enchantment itself which conjured the lightning bolt, it was just an electrical discharge like those that came from the sky. The dragon seemed to recuperate rapidly from damage, but it had been damaged, if briefly.
Hence his current strategies in place. Adjavegh was laying a trap in one of Veilgrad’s open squares, positioning soldiers with battlestaves in windows surrounding the square. Once they were in place, the all-volunteer “bait squad” would attempt to provoke it into the killbox where it could be blasted apart by a torrent of lightning from all directions. So far the skeletal dragon hadn’t used any kind of breath weapon, merely attacking with its jaws, talons, and tail. If that failed, there was his backup plan underway: Timms and the Quartermaster had rustled enough working crossbows to outfit two squads and Q was at work crafting explosive bolts, using chemical flashpowder from fireworks rather than alchemicals, which might be ineffective against chaos.
As of yet, he had no Plan C.
“Damn scrolltowers,” he growled, crumpling the garbled message in his fist. “Guess that means we won’t be hearing an explanation from the Conclave of the Winds, either.”
“That’s not a dragon, sir!” called one of the young men at the windows with a spyglass.
“Come again, soldier?”
“It’s too small by half, sir, and when I can get a glimpse through all the smoky shit… Yeah, those aren’t bones. It’s made to look like a dragon, but that isn’t a skeleton, it looks like carved…uh, what’s that shiny black rock? Volcanic glass?”
“Obsidian,” said Timms.
“Right, thanks, Sergeant. It’s a necromantic construct, sir. Like those things with the last chaos crisis.”
“Good eye, soldier,” said Adjavegh. He had no idea how to put that information to use, yet, but more intel was always better. “Keep it up. Timms, what’s the status of the killbox?”
“Squads still moving into position, sir. It’s slow getting through the catacombs, with all the civilians down there.”
He gritted his teeth, but didn’t complain. It wasn’t safe to move troops aboveground, but this inconvenience was a sign that the measures in place to protect Veilgrad’s citizens were at least working. With the upper levels of the catacombs cleared and entrances to them in countless buildings across the city, people had fled below. Most had gone without even needing to be chivvied along. This was now city policy in response to emergencies like this; at Duchess Dufresne’s insistence, they had held drills. Bless that creepy woman’s foresight.
Now, the city was almost eerily quiet, for all that parts of it were burning and dozens of buildings in various states of collapse. With everyone fled or fleeing underground, there were few screams, and even the alarm bells had gone silent—mostly because once people stopped shooting at it, the chaos dragon had gone after those. Only two of the belltowers were still standing, as they were mostly automated and the chaos effects caused by the dragon’s mere proximity had shorted out the enchantments running them before it felt the need to knock them down.
Unfortunately, that left it with nothing to do but circle above the city, hunting for stragglers. Which it was now doing again, perched atop a trade hall and craning its neck this way and that.
“What?” Timms burst out suddenly. “No, no. Who ordered— Stop them! You, get over there and shut that down!”
Adjavegh turned to follow her furious stare even as another soldier darted to the steps. To his incredulous horror, he saw one of the mag cannon emplacements atop the nearest watchtower powering up and swiveling to take aim at the dragon. Some clicker-happy artilleryman apparently couldn’t resist the opportunity of the thing finally holding still.
“Omnu’s hairy balls,” he breathed, seeing the inevitable unfold. He hadn’t given orders that the dragon not be fired upon with mag cannons; instead, he had disseminated the information that it was a chaos beast and presumed his soldiers knew what the fuck that meant, since every damn one of them had been trained on it. Allegedly. A running messenger wasn’t going to get down the stairs, across the battlements, and up the stairs in time…
And didn’t. Everyone in the command center cringed half a minute later as the mag cannon discharged with a roar.
It was a good shot. The barrel-thick beam of white light pierced the sky above the city and nailed the target dead-on—or would have, had it not been a chaos dragon. Several yards before the point of impact the beam itself dissolved, spraying the dragon with a heavy dusting of snowflakes. A solid coating of ice formed across the rooftop on which it sat, and then the ice burst into flame. A mag cannon burst contained a lot of magic for chaos to randomly distort. Adjavegh supposed it could have been a lot worse.
Not that it wasn’t plenty bad enough. The dragon shook itself furiously and roared, it’s eerie voice like nails upon a blackboard. Then, turning its blazing chromatic eyes upon the barracks from which the shot had come, it launched itself into the air and came winging right at them.
“Colonel!” Adjavegh turned to Timms just in time to catch the battlestaff she tossed at him. She was holding another herself. The two locked eyes for a second, and then he nodded. There was no need to communicate more.
Staff fire wouldn’t do much to help them, but if it was time to die for their Emperor, they would go down shooting. Across the command post, other officers and enlisted were drawing sidearms or equipping themselves from the weapon racks. There really wasn’t time for more than that, not even evacuating the tower.
It was a damn shame, Adjavegh reflected as time seemed to slow around them with the chaos dragon bearing down. He’d been skeptical of having an Eserite as his personal aide—you didn’t get many of them in the military—but Timms was the best he’d ever had. A con artist’s approach to logistics meant his soldiers got what they needed, regardless of what ImCom had decided to send where, and she had a deft hand at navigating Veilgrad’s peculiar local politics. Timms would’ve made a damn fine officer in time, if she wasn’t poached by Intelligence first.
Plus, now he wouldn’t get to tar and feather whatever absolute driveling moron had fired that cannon. That was a regret, too.
“Gentlemen, ladies,” the Colonel said, raising the battlestaff to his shoulder and keeping his eyes fixed upon the apparition of smoke and black bone surging toward them, “I am honored to have served with every one of you. For the Emperor!”
Then an explosion burst in midair directly next to the dragon, sending it tumbling away over the city walls and shattering windows and rooftiles in a four-block radius.
While the soldiers gaped from their command post, the dragon recovered, pirouetting in midair to face this new threat, and immediately being peppered by a series of purple-black streaks, all of which misfired in some manner upon impacting it. They fizzled, careened off-course, transformed into bursts of fire or clumps of dirt, even a flurry of flower petals. Enough of those effects were painful to fully distract their target from the barracks.
The dragon pivoted on a wingtip, diving at another rooftop. Adjavegh saw a blot of darkness swell seconds before its impact, and then the beast was under attack from another direction as it investigated the crushed roof under its claws. An orange summoning circle appeared in midair and out of it hurtled a chunk of black stone. That was apparently not magic; it hit the beast hard enough to send it tumbling off into the street below.
Once it burst into the air again, another series of shadowbolts seized its attention and it went haring off in a new direction.
“What in the hell?” Adjavegh lowered his staff in disbelief.
“Sir!” exclaimed the soldier with the spyglass, “it’s the Duchess!”
“No, sir, the other Duchess. The new one!”
“The—wait, the warlock? What in blazes is the woman thinking? No spellcaster can bring that thing down!”
“No,” said Timms, “but she can herd it out of the city!”
Indeed, the distant shape of Natchua Leduc was only visible now in the momentary surges of shadow as she vanished from one rooftop after another, continually firing her ineffective spells at the chaos dragon and goading it to chase her ever farther away. Toward the western walls, and the empty prairie beyond.
Colonel Adjavegh had not been best pleased at the recent political developments. In his opinion, the last thing House Leduc needed was to continue existing, and his impression of Natchua herself was that she was an irascible brat whose primary talents were rabble-rousing and preening. It had certainly not pleased him to learn that she’d publicly cut a deal with the Black bloody Wreath just the night before. In this moment, he was forced to revise his opinion somewhat.
“Avei’s grace,” he said grudgingly. “the girl may be an evil bitch, but if she’s going to be our evil bitch, I can live with it. All right, people, we’ve got a breather! The killbox and flashpowder plans are not to be discontinued in case it gets away from her and comes back. Timms, see if we can get some telescrolls through to Tiraas now that that damn thing’s leaving the area. Send physical messengers, too, through different city gates. Carriage and horse riders; worst case, something’s gotta slip through. Notify the evac squads there’s been high-level infernomancy cast above the streets and put together a cleansing team to get to work as soon as we have an all-clear.”
He paused amid the flurry of activity his orders provoked, and then added another.
“And I want the officer in command of that artillery post replaced and in a cell before I finish this sentence.”
“On it, sir,” Timms said crisply, already scribbling on her clipboard and gathering two messengers with pointed jerks of her head.
Adjavegh allowed himself a deep, steadying breath as he turned back to the western windows of his command post. In this day and age, one could forget that the oldest Imperial Houses were founded by adventurers. Modern nobles were the descendants of the people who had the fancy magic weapons looted from deepest dungeons and the skill and experience to use them. They made themselves rulers by stepping up and doing what was necessary during crises, when no one else had the will or the capability. Even the Leducs and Dufresnes had earned their position by conquering the greater part of the Stalrange on the Empire’s behalf. Having known his share of prissy aristocrats, he had assumed those days were long over.
Instead, he now found time, and a need, to mutter a prayer for the warlock of Veilgrad.
“Godspeed, you crazy witch. Give ‘im hell.”