“First things first: you do not give me orders.”
Natchua brandished an accusing finger right in Ampophrenon’s face, and her hair was immediately blown back by a powerful draconic snort which wasn’t the worst thing she’d ever smelled, but she could altogether have done without. Trissiny clapped a hand over her eyes; Toby just leaned his head back to stare at the sky as if he might find patience there. Gabriel, Natchua noticed peripherally, was making small steps and squinting at the ground as if looking for something, but she paid him no further mind, what with the dragon dominating her perspective.
“I came here to aid and protect, not to interfere with you or anyone,” Ampophrenon growled. “That does not mean I will forebear whatever action is necessary to prevent more harm done to the mortal world by demonkind.” His huge head shifted slightly to direct a baleful glance behind her at the Wreath; most of them shuffled backward nervously, though Mogul just folded his arms and met the dragon with a defiant stare. Ampophrenon had already returned his attention to Natchua, though. “In matters of chaos or infernomancy, to say nothing of both, I will not take needless risks. Explain.”
She narrowed her own eyes, thinking rapidly. The thought suddenly at the forefront of her mind was that being cagey and keeping secrets was risky and just not sustainable. Natchua wasn’t a deceptive person by nature; sooner or later she’d slip up if she tried leading a double life of any kind. And that wasn’t even touching on the fact that Mogul and the Wreath knew of her connection to Elilial, and she didn’t doubt for a second they would drop that into the open the moment they saw advantage for themselves in it. Or just for the sheer assholery of it.
At the first opportunity, Natchua decided, she needed to sit down with the three paladins—the three other paladins, technically—and explain what Elilial had done to her. Apart from avoiding the effort of keeping secrets, they might well be able to help. That was them, however. This particular situation did not call for excessive honesty; she had a strong feeling she knew exactly what Ampophrenon the bloody Gold would do if he found himself nose-to-nose with the first ever Hand of Elilial.
“The same way anybody gets magic to work around chaos,” she said shortly. “I rustled up some divine intervention.”
His golden eyes narrowed to slits. “You…managed to stir Salyrene from her isolation to aid your craft? Impressive. And dubious.”
“Oh, I wish,” Natchua replied, emitting a short bark of involuntary laughter. “That would have been so much better! No, I have no idea how to reach out to Salyrene, if that’s even possible anymore, for anybody. Nah, it’s worse than that.”
“Elilial.” The growled word was not a question.
Natchua folded her arms. “I guess she pays attention to anybody who manages to tweak her nose good and proper. And no, I’m not saying it was a good idea, just that it was the only one I had. Obviously, if I’d known you four were on the way I would’ve just stalled until you got here. But I didn’t, did I?”
“I more than guess at the Dark Lady’s habits,” Ampophrenon stated, baring his huge fangs at her. “You court more peril than you understand, young woman. Elilial has long held a fascination for those who thwart her. Many a defender of the Light has become entangled in her schemes after winning a great victory, ending as a pawn of Hell, willingly or not. Those unwise enough to wield infernomancy against her are likelier than most to face that fate.”
“Huh,” Natchua muttered, intrigued in spite of herself. “I did not know that.”
“Then consider yourself warned, if only belatedly. I dearly hope you paid for this aid up front, warlock. If you incurred a debt to her…”
“Oh, the price was quite explicit.” She jerked a thumb over her shoulder at the assembled Wreath. “I had to let them help. Y’know, first step in cleaning up their image with the truce in place. Since I needed somebody to hold the line for me while I put together the necessary spells, it worked out. As far as I knew then, anyway,” she added, scowling. “Again, if I’d known proper help was coming…”
“Ingrate,” Mogul snorted.
“Yeah, and that’d be why she was so eager to lend you a hand,” Gabriel commented from the sidelines, still pacing about and studying the trampled earth.
“Indeed,” Ampophrenon rumbled, rearing back to gaze down at them from his full, towering height. “I apologize that I was not swift enough to assist against the chaos event. But I am here now, and at the very least, I can prevent this from becoming a further issue. You are owed thanks…Natchua. I scarcely imagined I would find the entire surviving Black Wreath, gathered conveniently within range of my claws.”
“Hang on,” Toby interjected, “Lord Ampophrenon, Elilial does have a truce with the Pantheon.”
“I have ever labored to serve the Pantheon’s interests,” the dragon rumbled, the first hints of golden flame beginning to flicker around his jaws. “But I have never served under them. If Elilial chooses to take this up with me directly…well, it will not have been our first such discussion.”
“Stop,” Natchua barked over her shoulder, holding up a hand as if that would forestall the cluster of infernal spells she felt being formed, as if anything a dozen warlocks could conjure would take down three paladins and a gold dragon. “And you, back off! As much as it galls me, these fuckers are under my protection.”
“Oh?” the dragon growled.
“We made a deal,” she insisted. “They did their part. They risked their lives fighting to protect my city, and that places them under my guarantee of safety. That was my end of the bargain, and it doesn’t change because you offer me a convenient out. It’s called honor; I hear it was kind of a big deal, back in your day.”
He snorted again, this time producing a short gout of lightfire along with the rush of hot breath. “I respect your position, young woman, but this matter is larger than you by far. If I will not stand down for the Pantheon’s truce, yours certainly will not change my mind. Stand aside.”
“Listen here, dragon!” Natchua snarled, again pointing accusingly at him.
Ampophrenon lowered his head so abruptly that for a split second she thought he was striking at her with the intent to bite, but he simple dropped his enormous skull to ground level, the better to glare into her eyes.
“Yes?” The dragon’s retort resonated through the ground and her very bones, a pointed reminder of just what she was facing.
And for one brief moment, she was within a hair’s breadth of making a similar point right back at him. By the way Trissiny and Toby tensed up, it seemed they saw the same coming.
It was the urge that stopped her, the indefinable impulses that had guided her to this point in life. Her cunning, according to Elilial; the result of her magical imbuement reacting with her own intelligence, by Bradshaw’s theory. It told her to stop, and this time, Natchua forced herself not only to listen, but to think. She tried to embrace it consciously, follow the impulse with her reasoning. Why was this new plan the one she should pursue?
Obviously, throwing down with a gold dragon was a very bad idea, but not a worse one than taking on Elilial, and her so-called cunning hadn’t stopped her from doing that. Could she take him on? The Wreath would pretty much have to help her, and in this case, the three paladins might not intervene… Of course, he was Ampophrenon the Gold. Hero of the Hellwars, vanquisher of archdemons, and who knew what else over thousands of years of storied activity against the forces of Hell. She was likely not even the first grandmaster warlock he’d faced, and his continued existence attested to how that had turned out.
No…that wasn’t it, wasn’t the thing forewarning her. It didn’t feel right. Natchua tried to follow that to its source, to something she could parse rationally. Feelings were just mental shortcuts, enabling quick responses to huge gluts of data the conscious mind couldn’t sort as quickly. Somewhere, deep within it, there was cogent reason—especially in her case, if Bradshaw’s theory was correct.
“Well?” Ampophrenon growled pointedly, emphasizing that she’d been frozen in thought for several long seconds while the tension thickened around them.
As if inspired by his prompting, she had it. The warning wasn’t telling her to surrender or retreat, but to change strategies. No matter how she might wish otherwise, Natchua was not Tellwyrn. She could defeat a dragon, just not in a contest of magic or might. But a Duchess had resources an archwarlock did not.
Natchua raised her chin, attempting to look down her nose at the towering beast before her.
“Is it my understanding, then, that the Conclave of the Winds intends to intervene unilaterally, by force, in the internal affairs of an Imperial province? Please state your position specifically and in detail, Lord Ampophrenon. I wish to deliver an accurate and thorough complaint to the Silver Throne and to your embassy.”
“Ah, yeah,” Gabriel remarked lazily. He’d wandered a few yards distant by that point, and now finally looked up from his search of the ground to make a wry face at them both. “We kinda skipped over the introductions, didn’t we? Lord Ampophrenon, this is Duchess Natchua of House Leduc.”
“Leduc.” He bared his teeth at her again.
“She’s not wrong, also,” Trissiny added, grimacing. “House Leduc doesn’t hold the governorship of Lower Stalwar Province at the moment, but this deal of patronage in exchange for service was ratified by Duchess Malivette, who is the governor. I witnessed the agreement myself.”
Ampophrenon twisted his neck around to stare incredulously at her.
“I know,” she exclaimed, raising her hands in defeat. “I blame myself. Apparently when you’ve half-drowned one noblewoman, the ones who don’t have to be physically afraid of you lose all regard for your opinion.”
“Malivette’s the vampire,” Toby added helpfully. “So…oof. I’m afraid this isn’t as simple as we’d like. You are a representative of a sovereign government, and they are protected agents of the provincial defenses… Wow. That would technically be an act of war, wouldn’t it?”
“I can assure you,” Natchua added, “Whatever the Silver Throne decided to do to the Conclave in that eventuality, I would personally guarantee the closure, on pain of lethal measures, of this and our allied province in Madouris, to all Conclave personnel. Shut the fuck up, Mogul,” she snapped, breaking her haughty demeanor momentarily in response to his cackling before turning back to the dragon. “And that, Lord Ampophrenon, would be a very regrettable position for me as well as for you. Because I find myself in such a situation that I have to not only tolerate but embrace the Black Wreath in my province, and I for once would feel a great deal more comfortable if a certain gold dragon could be made welcome to visit Veilgrad at his leisure.”
Slowly, Ampophrenon’s expression shifted, one of the scaly ridges above his left eye rising. The expression was recognizable but awfully peculiar on his reptilian face. His tone of voice, at least, was far more thoughtful, if unmistakably loaded. “Oh?”
“Oh, very nice,” Mogul snorted behind her, his laughter fading abruptly. “I see how it is.”
“You know what, Embras?” Natchua rounded on him. “You’re goddamn right that’s how it is. We have our arrangement and I’m a woman of my word, but that doesn’t make me a fucking idiot. I don’t trust you nearly as far as I could throw you. So long as you do your part and toe the line, I will faithfully look out for your interests, but honestly? I’m expecting you to manage that for about a week, tops. And I’d love nothing more than to have a big friendly dragon around to charbroil your ass the second you step out of order.” She looked rapidly back and forth between him and Ampophrenon. “We all know where we stand, here?”
“It is still the fairest deal we have been offered by the mortal powers of this world since long before living memory,” Hiroshi said softly.
Bradshaw grunted. “She’s still a vicious little shit, Embras, but she stood up to a gold dragon for us. It’s… Like Hiroshi said, it’s fair.”
Trissiny had paced slowly forward while they spoke, and now reached up to rest one gauntleted hand against Ampophrenon’s elbow, which even with him crouching to the ground was slightly above her head height. He twisted his neck to look at her again.
“She’s serious, though,” The paladin assured him quietly. “Natchua is…Natchua. What you see is what you get; this conversation alone probably tells you more or less what you need to know. But she does try to do her best toward the right thing. Her first act as an Imperial noble was to try to entice Eserites back to Veilgrad, just because she felt nobility should have some check on their power.”
“Thanks, Triss,” Natchua said sourly. “Look, Ampophrenon, we can be enemies if it’s that important to you. Or we can be allies, even if you find the prospect uncomfortable. If I can play nicely with these assholes, I will definitely not turn up my nose at you.” She hesitated, feeling the intuition rise up again, this time prompting her to do something she really didn’t want to. But it hadn’t led her wrong yet. Swallowing her pride—and swallowing physically in the process—Natchua continued grudgingly. “Look, I… It’s probably not news to you that I have no idea what I’m doing here. I’ve been staying one hop ahead of a crisis, not just with this chaos horseshit but…generally. I’m certainly not blind to the fact that fucking around with infernomancy is almost certainly gonna be what kills me in the end, not that that was my choice to begin with. I would… That is, if you’d be willing to accept my welcome to visit Veilgrad at your own leisure, to keep an eye on whatever you feel could do with some oversight, I would… I’d be grateful for any guidance you could spare me.”
Slowly, Ampophrenon reared up again so that his neck arched high above, and gazed quizzically down at her, even tilting his head to one side as if puzzling over what he saw. Everyone stared up at the dragon in anticipatory silence. Everyone except Gabriel, who was now poking about in the charred and flattened mat of tallgrass with his booted toe and the butt of his scythe.
At last the golden dragon shook his head once, then shifted. The transition was remarkably smooth considering the change of size involved; a second later, Natchua found herself face to face with a tall man in golden armor, his eyes featureless orbs of light. Even in that smaller form, he projected presence almost like a physical force. Now that she had a moment to pause and consider it, she had the distinct impression that only her own native orneriness was keeping her from falling to one knee before him. Dragons were intense, even when they weren’t tacitly threatening to destroy you.
“I have lived a long time,” he said, his voice sonorous still, but at least not overpowering to the eardrums, “and seen a great many things, some more…surprising than others. Rare as such individuals are, the truth is that I have counted infernomancers and even demons among my allies in the past. They face a high hurdle when it comes to earning trust, as it should be. Yet in the end, real situations are complicated, and individuals should be judged by their actions. I am reminded of the paladins’ friend Xyraadi, whom I understand they liberated from imprisonment quite recently.”
“My friend, too,” Natchua interjected. “I invited Xyraadi to my coming out party yesterday. I think she came even closer than Trissiny to fireballing Mogul here off the face of the earth. Not that I blame her.”
Wonder of wonders, a faint smile tugged at one corner of Ampophrenon’s mouth. “Ah? On the one hand that seems an improbable coincidence… And yet, speaking to you now, it fits together oddly well. What I recall, now, is that the common factor among every warlock I have found worthy to work alongside, over the centuries, has been that they sought out restraints upon their power and safeguards against their own inevitable failure to contain it.” He narrowed his eyes and tilted his on chin up, giving Natchua a long and openly judgmental look that made her bristle, but she restrained herself. “You have certainly not earned my trust, Natchua Leduc. But based upon what I see, and the recommendation of the Hands of the gods… I am willing to believe you deserve the chance to earn that trust.”
She drew in a deep breath. “I grew up in Tar’naris, y’know. And not as a noble, either; I was a low-caste orchard picker. I’m only mentioning it so you have a bit of perspective when I inform you that that was the single most condescending thing anyone’s ever said to me.”
“And if you are very blessed indeed,” Ampophrenon replied, unabashed, “that will be the worst discomfiture you are forced to endure for some time. May we all be so blessed, but let us not count on it.”
“Natchua, enough,” Trissiny interjected when she opened her mouth again. “This is the closest thing to a win we’re all going to get out of this. You can’t put this many people who want each other dead in the same place and expect hand-holding and hugs.”
“Yes,” Toby added, quiet but firm. “Let us please have peace, as long as we can.”
Vanessa heaved an exasperated sigh; fortunately, everyone ignored her.
“Quite so,” said Ampophrenon, now inclining his head forward. “The Conclave’s very formation was an acknowledgment of the new reality of the world: that we who wield tremendous power can no longer prosper simply by exercising it.” He glanced past her at the robed warlocks with a flat expression before meeting her eyes again. “It seems we must find ways to…tolerate the presence of detestable people, at least up to a point. Learning to find the proper balance will not be swift or easy, I expect, but I will make the effort in good faith.”
“Ah hah!” Gabriel crowed, fortunately before Natchua had to find something polite to say to the overbearing dragon. Everyone turned to watch him bend over and carefully pick something up from the mess of dirt, charred tallgrass stalks and fragments of shattered obsidian that had been pieces of the necro-drake’s exposed skeleton. “Found it.”
He held it up: a black shard that resembled the broken bits of glass all around at first glance, save that it was smoothly curved and not crystalline in structure. Moreover, to the magically-attuned eyes of everyone present, it was wrong. Not visually, but to look at the thing was to feel the twisted energies permeating it, struggling against the very shape of nature around them.
Toby took an involuntary step forward. “Is that…?”
“The chaos source,” Natchua said, frowning. “It was embedded in the monster’s skull. I was just about to go looking for it when you lot landed on top of me.”
“And he’s holding that thing with his bare hands?” Rupi marveled. “Well, folks, there it is: the dumbest thing any of us will ever see.”
“Oh, blow it out your ass,” Gabriel snapped. “I’m a paladin, and I came here prepared for chaos specifically. It’s a good thing we did arrive before you got down to cleanup, Natchua. I’m not sure your impromptu deal with Elilial would’ve extended to you handling something like this safely. As long as it’s one of us three holding it, with the Trinity paying direct attention to this, it should be…” He hesitated. “Yeah, uh, safe doesn’t seem like the right word. Stable?”
“Well, that’s great for now,” Trissiny said, scowling, “but what do we do with it?”
“If I recall,” Toby offered, “the standard practice everybody’s agreed on for chaos artifacts is to have Tellwyrn secure them—”
He had to stop, being overwhelmed by a cacophony of shouts and complaints from the various Wreath warlocks present.
“Silence.” Even without changing to his greater form, Ampophrenon could project his voice with a tangible power that permitted no contradiction. To Natchua’s surprise, the Elilinists didn’t resume their protests even after the sheer force of it cut them off, and the dragon continued in a much calmer tone. “Chaos artifacts, perhaps. I will spare you a recitation of Arachne’s faults, as I’m sure most of those here are familiar with them intimately, but it is true that she has proved herself trustworthy when it comes to securing such devices away from meddling hands. Those are deliberately created objects meant for mortal use, however, not…this. That is a fragment of pure evil; the danger it poses comes from its very existence.”
“I can guarantee you it was being used in something deliberately created,” Natchua scoffed.
“Indeed. Gabriel, if I may…?”
Gabriel obligingly stepped closer to the dragon, holding up the shard; everyone else shifted away, but Ampophrenon leaned forward, peering closely at the incongruously small object without reaching to touch it himself. Slowly, the dragon’s expression descended into a scowl of barely restrained fury.
“That,” he stated icily, “is dragonbone. Ancient, and infused with chaos while the dragon was still alive.”
“And that,” Toby whispered, “tells us everything.”
“Belosiphon the Black,” said Trissiny. “His skull was here, in Veilgrad, not long ago. We saw it with our own eyes.”
“…before it was taken away by Ravoud, and agents of Archpope Justinian,” Gabriel finished, baring his teeth in a grin of angry triumph. “Finally, we’ve got the slippery bastard dead to rights!”
“Don’t count your chickens before they hatch, son,” Mogul interjected, ambling forward to join them and generally ignoring all the hostile expressions directed his way. “I reckon at least some of what happened here today would’ve taken even Justinian by surprise, but that’s a man who doesn’t so much as scratch his ass without layers of plausible deniability and contingency plans in place. Not that I’m saying it’s nothing, just be prepared to be disappointed if you were hoping this’d be the—”
He broke off with a muffled curse and stumbled backward as Gabriel suddenly shoved the dragonbone shard into his face, barely avoiding being touched by it.
“Gabe, that was just plain juvenile,” Toby reproached.
“Yes, it was,” Trissiny said solemnly. “Do it again.”
“Please do not play around with that,” Ampophrenon in a tone that brought all levity to an instant halt. The dragon paused, shaking his head, before continuing. “Power is granted to paladins to neutralize and destroy chaos sources such as this. Each of your cults has its own ritual magic to achieve that end, requiring chiefly one or more god’s direct attention through an intermediary such as a Hand or high priest. Have any of you been taught such craft yet?” He met each of their eyes before continuing. “No matter, I know both Avenist and nondenominational variants of the spell, which I shall gladly teach you. Aside from the urgent need of this moment, I suspect this portends a further use for this knowledge in the days to come. Best that you be prepared.”
“Whoah, hang on,” said Natchua. “You’re not suggesting there are going to be more of those things?”
“That one, it seems, was made from one tiny shard of bone,” Ampophrenon replied gravely. “You just saw firsthand how large a dragon’s skull is. It smacks to me of conserving a resource for which further use is intended. Not to mention that this appears to have achieved little except some random destruction in the vicinity. For a cunning operator such as Justinian, that seems an uncharacteristic action…unless it was only a trial run.”
“Fuck,” Gabriel whispered.
“Yeah, well, you guys can get the next one,” said Vanessa. “Not that that wasn’t some decent exercise, but—”
“If the next one comes here, you’ll do your part and like it,” Natchua informed her. “But yeah, for the record, I will much prefer to have paladin or draconic help if it’s available.”
“And while we’re on the subject of cooperation,” Mogul said cheerfully, stepping back up to the conversation, though this time he pointedly did not come within arm’s reach of Gabriel. “Just to lay out the facts: the truce between the Dark Lady and the Pantheon prohibits combat between their servants and hers, yes? But based on the information Vesk provided her—and thanks to you three for collecting it, by the way—it was Justinian himself who meddled in our summoning to destroy the Lady’s daughters.” His grin stretched till it looked almost painful, a rictus of pure malice barely cloaked in unhinged glee. “And now, it seems, we have confirmation that Justinian is no servant of the Pantheon, after all. I believe you know what that means.”
“In my considerable experience,” said Ampophrenon, staring him down, “the enemy of my enemy is not necessarily my friend.”
“There was never any question of us being friends, let’s not pretend otherwise,” Mogul agreed. “But in the here and now, ladies, dragons, and paladins, it appears that we all have the same problem. And as of this moment, it is officially open season on his ass.”