Tag Archives: Zanzayed the Blue

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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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9 – 34

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“We’re with the Silver Legions,” Principia called to the two golems. “If you can understand me—”

She received an answer in the form of two staff blasts that rocked herself and Ephanie back a half-step, making their formation quaver. An acrid smell rose over the lightning-induced tang of ozone in the air, the sign of a shield charm nearing the point of burnout. Those things hit much harder than the wandshots fired by the protestors.

“Retreat!” she barked, and the squad began backing away as quickly as they could, considering they were climbing damp stairs backwards. The golems remained where they were, not attempting to follow, but kept their staves trained on the Legionnaires. They did not fire again, however.

“That’s a defensive posture,” said Ephanie. “They’re blocking access to that landing, not trying to kill us.”

“Sarge,” Casey warned, glancing over her shoulder, “we are back in range of that cannon. It’s still aiming at us!”

“Veth’na alaue,” Principia muttered, turning to look. At their current height on the staircase, their heads and shoulders were visible above the top, just enough to put them in view of the artillery emplacement. It was indeed still trained on their position. For a moment she held onto the hope that it had been left there and abandoned, but even as she peered up at the mag cannon, its barrel began to glow. This time, it appeared to be building up a significant charge rather than firing right away. “Shit, there’s no cover.”

“Cannons would need to have this platform in their range of fire to clear away attackers,” Ephanie said crisply. “Sarge, I think we have a better chance taking on the golems.”

“No,” said Principia. “Break ranks and get to the far corner over there, just on the other side of the opposite gate. Go.”

She led the way, the others following; they bounded up the last few steps and dashed diagonally across the platform, huddling into the very far corner between the city wall and the stone balustrade. The active mag cannon swiveled to track them, but it couldn’t turn as fast as they could run, and ultimately didn’t manage to turn all the way. Its rotation stopped short of giving it full coverage of the platform.

“Okay, that’s something,” said Merry, who was sandwiched between Farah and the wall. “We’re still in range of the artillery on this side, though.”

“Nobody attacked us from east gatehouse,” said Principia. “Avelea, are they connected?”

“Not directly,” Ephanie replied, “but they could cross the battlements above to reach it.”

“Still no sign of movement from over here,” Principia murmured, her eyes sweeping the scene. “Keep your shields up and attention on the arrow loops; if anybody fires from there, return fire. Sing out immediately if one of these cannons starts to move. Time’s on our side; the Army has to be back in place sooner than later.”

“But we don’t know what kind of timetable that is,” Farah said tremulously.

“Right, which is why we’re not gonna sit here and wait for rescue,” Principia replied. “Listen up: once we start moving we’ll be back in range of the cannon, so we’ll need to work fast. When I give the word, fall into wedge formation facing that mag cannon and rake it. Avelea, how badly can we damage it?”

“With five staff-equivalent weapons, easily enough to take it out of commission, assuming five direct hits—and assuming whoever’s up there doesn’t know to activate its shields. Sarge, you remember our accuracy when we drilled with these things. And that cannon is still charging; the second we’re in its line of sight it’ll fire.”

Prin nodded, scowling at the mag cannon. It was partly hidden from view by the slight protrusion of the gatehouse, but they could see most of it from their position. “Scratch that, then. Avelea, Lang, you’re the best shots. Take position against the wall here and start peppering it. See if you can put it out of action. As soon as that thing is down, we form up and concentrate fire on this door. I want us off this ledge and back inside the walls ASAP.”

“Pretty sure attacking the city defenses is technically treason,” Merry muttered, kneeling with her shoulder against the wall while Ephanie took aim above her head. They fired simultaneously, then kept up a steady barrage, pausing only long enough between shots to keep their weapons from overheating.

Lightning scored black rents in the stonework near the mag cannon, but most of their shots hit it directly. The blue flash of heavy-duty shielding charms signaled that this would not be that easy, but no charm had an infinite charge, heavy or not.

Whoever was at the cannon’s controls clearly agreed; after a few seconds of taking fire, it retaliated. This time, it was fully charged.

The whole squad mashed themselves flat against the wall, raising shields in front of themselves, and even so, it was barely enough. The blast of white light that roared past them barely a yard from their faces was accompanied by a corona of ferocious static electricity; their shield charms flared almost opaque, whining in protest, and Casey’s shattered in a cascade of sparks. A cart-sized chunk of the platform adjacent to them was smashed to rubble.

“Elwick!” Principia shouted a second later, blinking the glare from her eyes. “Report!”

“Singed, not hurt, ma’am,” Casey said, still huddled behind her shield. “Sarge, my charm’s broken! If that fires again—”

“It’s not gonna fire again,” Principia said grimly. “Hold your position. If this doesn’t work, Avelea’s in command.”

She darted out into the open, crossing the platform in seconds and dropping her shield and lance on the way. The elf launched herself into a running jump, landing at the edge of the far balustrade and kicking off it; she spun in midair to kick off the very narrow protrusion of stonework that sheltered the gate, soaring higher in the direction of open space, but caught herself on the edge of an arrow loop. Dangling from it by both hands, she swung her body to the left, and then back to the right, actually running along the wall at a steep angle till she hit the narrow rim of stone again and kicked off, getting a grip on the next loop up.

A figure leaned out of a nearby arrow loop, aiming a wand at her; he was instantly struck by shots from Ephanie and Merry, and fell forward without a scream to lie smoking on the platform below.

“Now that’s interesting,” Merry muttered. “I thought Legion training for elves meant they weren’t that agile anymore…”

Principia was in the middle of another improbable leap when a figure peeked out from behind the battlements shielding the mag cannon, taking aim at her with a wand. Ephanie and Merry immediately fired on him, but the cannon’s defenses absorbed the bolts, leaving him with a clear shot at the sergeant.

A shadow fell across the platform.

The man at the cannon turned to look, then let out a squeal and dived back into cover; Principia paused, dangling from the bottom of an arrow loop and twisting her neck to see what was happening.

Though he landed with as much gentleness as possible, the beat of his massive wings was nearly enough to jar her loose from the wall. Bracing his hind legs on the platform, Ampophrenon the Gold grasped the upper battlements of the gatehouse with his right hand and laid the other on the mag cannon that had been harassing Squad One. With obvious care, he very gingerly turned it to face out to sea.

The cannon’s mounting rent asunder in a shower of sparks, leaving the dragon holding the broken weapon.

“Ah,” he rumbled, staring at the cannon in his hand with an abashed expression that was astonishing on his reptilian face. “Well, drat.”

Setting the cannon down on its ledge, he placed his hand under Principia’s dangling feet. “If I may, Sergeant?”

She gave him a long, considering look before letting go, dropping lightly into his palm. Ampophrenon lowered her carefully to the ground outside the gates.

A yelp cut through the air, and a figure emerged from the battlements above, drifting out into space. Dragonsbane, in her distinctive mask and wing cloak, squirmed as she was levitated above the gates, flailing about wildly with her saber. Behind her, another figure in lavish blue robes appeared, standing lightly on the battlements themselves.

“This isn’t over!” the woman ranted, shaking the weapon at him. “You can kill me, you can kill all of us, but one day—”

“I’m sorry to cut off what’s shaping up to be a really good monologue,” Zanzayed called out, “but you might want to save that one for another occasion, Marshal. The rest of your cohorts are all under a sleeping charm; nobody can hear you but us.”

Dragonsbane halted her gyrations, then very deliberately twisted herself to peer pointedly downward at Principia and the rest of her squad.

“Oh, don’t mind us,” said Merry. “This just got very interesting.”

“I believe the sun has set on this particular bit of subterfuge,” Ampophrenon rumbled, rearing up and spreading his wings. Moments later, he had shrunk down to his humanoid form and stepped off the balustrade onto the platform. “I said from the beginning that we should have been up front with Locke instead of trying to manipulate her, Zanzayed. All this chaos is what results from attempting to play such games with notoriously clever people.”

“You just hate fun, that’s all,” Zanzayed replied gaily, as he and Dragonsbane slowly drifted to the ground.

Ampophrenon grimaced at him, then turned to Dragonsbane and bowed. “I apologize for damaging the cannon, Marshal. Needless to say, I will be financially responsible for that and all damage to Imperial property incurred here.”

“That’s generous of you, m’lord,” she said carefully, “but there is really no way to arrange that without revealing your complicity in this. I’m sure the Imperial treasury can absorb it.”

“Shut up,” Principia said, bending to pick up her lance. “I don’t know what this is, and right now I am past giving a shit. You’re all under arrest.”

Ampophrenon blinked his luminous eyes at her. “Ah… Forgive me, Sergeant Locke, but I don’t think you understand—”

“Here’s what I understand,” she short back, leveling the lance at Dragonsbane and fingering the trigger charm that parted its blades to reveal the firing crystal. “I want all of you on your knees, weapons on the ground and hands on your heads before I have time to repeat my instructions.”

Before any of them could respond to that—which was perhaps fortunate, given Zanzayed’s gleeful expression—the side gate through which they had originally come opened, and a well-dressed man in his middle years stepped out. He glanced once at the scene—the two dragons, the Legionnaires, the improbably-dressed woman in the mask—and cleared his throat.

“Thank you for your commitment to civil order, Sergeant, but that won’t be necessary. My name is Quentin Vex; I head Imperial Intelligence. Perhaps it’s time we had a talk.”


 

Wide slashes were the opposite of proper rapier technique, but Ruda had quickly discovered that whatever magic animated the skeletons ran very thin in each individual specimen; it didn’t agree at all with mithril. The merest touch of her sword sufficed to reduce them to inanimate bone. Thus, she swept the blade around herself in wide, scything arcs, carving a path through the horde of undead and so far avoiding injury at their skeletal hands.

Which was not to say this was a winning strategy; the sheer numbers of skeletons were turning the tide gradually against her and her classmates. It would have been a significant challenge to keep up with them even if they crumbled to dust on each hit, but she was accumulating drifts of fallen bones all around herself, forcing her to constantly retreat in order to retain her footing. And still they came on, no matter how many she felled.

Another of those peculiar golden blasts hit her in the side; there was some pressure to it, but despite what it had done to Shaeine (which had caused her to formulate a theory), it had had no other effect on Ruda, and she had decided not to worry about it.

“Would you quit doing that?” Juniper exclaimed off to her right upon being shot with another of them. The dryad turned and stalked toward the cultist who had fired on her, evidently having had enough. She had been bulling through the undead by sheer brute force; the ones she smashed had a tendency to keep moving, just in smaller pieces.

On Ruda’s other side, Vadrieny screamed in fury at a knot of onrushing skeletons, which fazed them not in the least. In the next second she was being swarmed by them—not taking any discernible damage, but being crawled over by human-sized enemies was enough to hamper even her strength.

“For fuck’s sake, Vadge, they’re not afraid of you!” Ruda exclaimed, cutting down another swath of undead. “Teal, tell your demon to just kill the bastards!”

The cultist shrieked in panic as Juniper got her hands on him. Wrenching the augmented staff out of his grasp, she hurled it to the side, then picked the man up and tossed him into the air. The dryad caught him by the ankle, and proceeded to swing him bodily around, using him as a grisly flail against the summoned undead.

Vadrieny hurled off the last of the skeletons swarming her and pumped her wings once to leap across the sanctuary to Ruda’s side, where she swiped half the undead attacking the pirate into shards. Standing back-to-back halved the area each had to control and made their task suddenly a great deal easier.

“Don’t ever call me that again,” the archdemon ordered.

“Yeah,” Ruda agreed. “Didn’t really think that one through before I opened my mouth.”

One of the remaining cultists was clipped by a skeleton thrown by Juniper in the act of firing his weapon at Vadrieny; the shot went wild, smashing one of the cathedral’s stained glass windows. Apparently they had that much force, at least.

A silver streak zipped in through the open door and discharged a blast of wind at him, followed by a splatter of sleet.

“THIS BUILDING IS A HISTORICAL TREASURE, YOU DEGENERATE POLTROON!” Fross roared, lashing out on all sides with ice—and notably avoiding the use of any of her more destructive spells. Restrained or not, it worked. Even undead had trouble moving with their feet frozen to the floor, and those that got loose were deprived of traction.

“Finally, some fucking progress,” Ruda growled as she and Vadrieny began edging sideways toward the dais where the remaining two cultists stood, now firing persistently at them. In that concentration, the mild blows of the golden shots were enough to impede their advance, though not by much.

Then, the skeletons began to die.

It started in the front corner of the room, with those which had gotten past the students and neared the front doors. They simply collapsed en masse, and a wave of destruction flashed through their ranks. Undead fell to pieces in a long trail as if something invisible were cleaving through them.

Within seconds the phenomenon had ripped across the entire cathedral, then those still pouring out of the doors behind the dais fell as whatever it was passed within to finish the job.

The sudden quiet was astonishing. Juniper halted amid a heap of fallen skeletons, blinking, then looked down at the man in her hand. Blood splattered her, the bones and everything in her vicinity; he was limp and seemed to bend in far too many places.

“Uh oh,” the dryad said sheepishly. “I broke mine, guys.”

The doors, which Vadrieny had shut after putting Shaeine outside, swung open, and all three paladins stalked into the sanctuary, shoulder to shoulder.

“Ah,” said Ruda. “Valkyries. That explains it. Coulda used some of those before. Welcome back, guys!”

She and Vadrieny were slightly off to the side, leaving a clear path between the doors and the dais, along which the cultists and paladins now locked eyes.

“Do your worst!” the man in the center screeched, taking aim with his staff. “A million shall fall, a million shall rise, and all comes to naught! Chaos cannot die!”

Gabriel stepped in front of Trissiny, drawing Ariel and glaring. He pulled back his arm and hurled the sword forward. It was a somewhat awkward throw, exhibiting all of his usual athleticism, but the blade flared blue in midair and zipped across the entire length of the sanctuary, spinning end over end.

The cultist staggered back as Ariel slammed into his chest, impaling him cleanly through the ribs.

Gabriel held out his left hand and made a grasping motion; a phantasmal glove of arcane blue flickered momentarily around Ariel’s hilt, and suddenly the sword wrenched slightly to the side, lodging herself firmly in the man’s ribs and eliciting a gasp of agony from him. Then Ariel jerked backward, sailing across the room to her master and dragging the impaled cultist along.

They came to a clean halt less than a yard from Gabriel, who calmly grasped Ariel’s hilt with his left hand and stepped forward, bringing his face to within inches of the man’s filthy, matted beard. With his other, he grabbed the augmented staff, which the cultist still clutched.

The Hand of Vidius sneered and spoke in a growl that resonated throughout the church.

“Nothing. Doesn’t. Die.”

Gabriel ripped Ariel out sideways and yanked the staff away simultaneously, brandishing both weapons out to the sides. Suddenly unsupported, the cultist staggered, then sank to his knees, whispering something under his breath, before finally falling to the ground. After a few weak twitches, he lay still.

In the silence that followed, they could actually hear the buzzing of Fross’s wings.

“Badass is a weird look on you, Arquin,” Ruda said finally. “Quick, say something dumb before I lose all faith in reality.”

Seemingly galvanized by her voice, the last robed cultist took aim at Gabriel. In the next moment, Vadrieny landed next to him, casually ripping the staff out of his hands and tossing it away, then grabbed him about the neck with one clawed hand and hauled him back to the students.

“You will tell us the source of the chaos,” the archdemon said matter-of-factly, roughly pulling back the cultist’s hood.

This one, thus revealed, was actually a woman. She was as filthy as the others, her face smeared with a grime of blended sweat, dust and caked skin oil, her hair matted and filled with the grunge of the catacombs. Eyes wide and rolling, she stared blankly at a point above Trissiny’s head as the paladin stepped up in front of her.

“The source, there is no source, everything is the source. You don’t see—you should see. You will see, but too late. It shines, but it’s darkness. It’s all. Everything that’s not is is illusion, because it’s illusion. It is and it’s not, you understand?”

“Just like the ones at the prison,” Toby murmured.

“Chaos is very unhealthy to be around,” Trissiny said grimly. “It was a good thought, Vadrieny, but I’m afraid trying to get information out of her is pointless. She’s not even resisting; she just can’t think in terms that would be useful.”

“Unless it’s an act,” Ruda said skeptically.

“Possible, but this is consistent with the observed behavior of chaos victims,” Ariel commented as Gabriel wiped her blade clean with a handkerchief.

“I dunno, they managed to plan and execute all this,” Gabriel said.

“Chaos cultists are known to exhibit a certain animal cunning,” said Trissiny. “It’s the higher functions of intelligence that suffer from chaos exposure; they still have instinct. That’s arguably all they have. Also, let’s keep in mind that the Black Wreath is present and active and has betrayed us once today. I don’t believe for a moment that they are as innocent in all this as Vanessa claimed.”

“They did what?” Vadrieny demanded, turning on her.

“The summoners were a trap,” said Gabriel. “The Wreath was already there, with weapons like these. They claimed to have taken them from the chaos cult, but they used ’em on us and tried to hold us prisoner.” He held up the staff in his hand, studying it with a distasteful grimace.

“What the fuck do those even do?” Ruda demanded.

“These are what the Empire was making,” said Trissiny. “They block divine magic. A cleric shot by one is temporarily unable to cast. Or a paladin, as we discovered.”

“That was the theory I developed,” said Shaeine, striding toward them from the door. “You did say temporarily?”

“Yeah, actually,” said Toby, stepping toward her, “and it turns out Omnu is inclined to override the effect. Shaeine, I’m not certain if this’ll work for you—you’re not a Pantheon cleric. But I don’t see any way it could hurt…”

“Please,” Shaeine said with barely restrained intensity, “try.”

Toby reached out, his aura flaring gold, and laid a hand on her shoulder. Vadrieny stepped up to Shaeine’s other side, squinting against the glow but not backing away.

After a moment, Toby let his light subside. “There. I… That’s it, Shaeine. Any more and we might both burn.”

Shaeine closed her eyes, and a halo of pure silver rose about her. She let out a deep sigh, the obvious relief on her features jarring considering her usual composure. Vadrieny wrapped a comforting arm around her shoulders.

“Thank you,” the drow said feelingly to Toby, who grinned back.

“That’s one fear addressed, then,” said Ruda, poking gingerly at the still-babbling cultist with the tip of her sword. When Vadrieny had released her, the woman had just slumped to her knees, making no move to either flee or attack. It was starting to look more and more as if her mind was simply gone. “Now what the hell are we supposed to do with this?”

“She’s no use to us,” Toby said firmly as the cultist continued muttering under her breath. “She’ll have to go into prison with the others. Despite everything, she’s as much a victim in this as anyone.”

Juniper wrinkled her nose. “Are you serious?”

“Yes,” Trissiny said firmly. “She’s not even mentally competent to stand trial. No one sets out to do things like this, Juniper; chaos damages the mind if you get too close to it. There are established legal precedents, here. She is to be considered insane and treated accordingly.”

“That leaves us back at square one, then,” said Gabriel. “With a city-wide disaster on top of everything else.”

“Not quite,” Ruda replied. “Think, guys. Undead coming up everywhere, sure. But this is the only place we’ve seen multiple cultists. They all came pouring out of the catacomb access right under this cathedral.”

“You think the source must be nearby,” said Fross.

“It’s as good a theory as any,” Toby agreed, nodding.

“And we’d better move our asses before the trail gets any colder,” Ruda added. “The chaos-whatsit may be close. We’ve got valkyries, three paladins, and my friend, here.” She held up the rapier. “And one of our paladins knows a thing or two about magic.”

“It’s possible he knows as many as three things,” said Ariel.

“I agree,” Trissiny said, drawing her sword. “Fross, Juniper, Shaeine and Vadrieny, please try to help the Army and the citizens outside. Those of us less vulnerable to chaos had better head below. If there’s a chance we can finish this, we have to take it.”

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9 – 22

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“She needs a minecart,” Teal said as they emerged into the cellar of Dufresne Manor.

“A what?” Trissiny asked distractedly.

“You know! A little box on wheels, set on tracks, to go back and forth. I mean, that’s a long walk in the dark.”

“Mm,” Trissiny said noncommittally, heading for the stairs up to the kitchen. “Let me do the talking.”

“What a good idea,” Shaeine said serenely. “Then Toby and I can handle the punching, and Juniper can go chop down a tree so we have something with which to stake our hostess through the heart.”

“I would never!” Juniper exclaimed in horror.

“I think that’s the joke,” Fross stage whispered.

Trissiny had stopped and turned to stare incredulously at Shaeine.

“Triss,” the priestess said in a gentler tone, “we are all taking this seriously, but you are not the most diplomatic person here.”

“Actually,” Fross said, “since Ruda stayed in town with Gabe she may be the least diplomatic person here!”

“Thanks, Fross,” Toby said resignedly.

“No problem!”

“That was exactly my point,” Trissiny said sharply. “Sometimes you need diplomacy. Sometimes you need to make a stand and demand answers.”

“It has been my considerable experience, and that of my House over many centuries of practicing and perfecting that very art, that getting answers—or anything in general—is easiest when one doesn’t make demands.” Shaeine shook her head. “We know Malivette practices some necromancy; we all saw the horses. We utilized them, in fact. She is trusted by Tellwyrn and Rafe, and has been kind to us. We will approach her calmly.”

“I have every intention of being calm,” Trissiny said stiffly. “Did you forget the commonality in every chaos cult that’s sprung up in Veilgrad lately? They all turned to necromancy.”

“So we’ll ask for answers,” Toby said. “And if she doesn’t want to give answers…”

“We’ll ask more assertively,” Trissiny said, nodding. “Fine, we’ll try it your way first.”

“And if it comes to being assertive,” Teal said firmly, “no stabbing, please.”

“Assaulting Malivette is not even on the table,” Trissiny said with a sigh, turning back to the stairs. “Frankly I’m not positive the lot of us could take her. If, and I am not suggesting that it’s going to happen, but if we end up needing to fight her for any reason, we’ll retreat and get Gabriel. Let the valkyries do their jobs.”

“I foresee that this will not be a negotiation about which I will tell my mother with pride,” Shaeine murmured, following Trissiny up the steps.

They paused at the top, the others having to gently push Trissiny forward, to take in the scene.

Pearl stood with her back to them, washing her hands in the sink. Professor Rafe lounged in a chair beside the fireplace; he grinned at the students as soon as they entered. At the center island, Schkhurrankh the Rhaazke demon stood wearing an apron at least two sizes too small over a dress that had clearly been hastily constructed from what seemed to be curtains, chopping onions.

She paused, staring at the students.

“BEHOLD!” Rafe shouted. At the sink, Pearl jumped and whirled, finally catching sight of them.

“Hello,” said Schkhurrankh.

“W—you speak Tanglish now?” Trissiny exclaimed.

The demon blinked and tilted her head. “Khhhhhello?”

“Oh. Right.”

“We’ve been having lessons!” Rafe proclaimed. “Rather one-sided conversations, but upon my honor, progress was made!”

“I’m surprised that conversation had any sides,” Teal said, frowning.

“Hah! Oil of Understanding, baby!” Rafe grinned, rocking his chair back and forth and ignoring Pearl’s disapproving look. “Of course, that only works on me, and me understanding her growling and snarling was only half the battle. A lot of alchemy is buggered up by demons, we’ve been over that in class. Actually, though! I can make a brew that’ll work for her, too, but for that I need a blood or tissue sample.” He paused, glancing speculatively at the demon. “I, uh, figured we’d wait till Vadrieny was here to translate before having that conversation. Not sure what’d happen if I came at her with a mithril scalpel, but I don’t reckon it’d leave anybody happy.”

Schkhurrankh grinned and casually tossed a handful of raw diced onion into her mouth, crunching happily.

“Save them for the roast,” Pearl said firmly. The demon stopped chewing, looking actually guilty, and hastily spat the mouthful back onto the pile. Pearl sighed and rubbed her forehead. “Thank you, Scorn.”

“Hello,” she said sheepishly.

Teal blinked rapidly. “W—Scorn? How did that happen?”

“Very carefully,” Pearl said, shaking her head and turning back to the sink.

“So it’s a mortal insult if you pronounce her name wrong,” Trissiny said, frowning, “but she’s okay with a nickname?”

“Well, not at first,” Rafe admitted. “But with much pantomime, we were able to express to her what it means. And now she likes it.”

Schkhurrankh—Scorn—grinned again. “Hello!”

“Vrackdish khnavai?” Teal asked.

Scorn blinked at her twice, then began snickering.

“I really need to practice that language,” Teal muttered. Shaeine patted her gently on the back.

“Shkhalvrik, d’min sklacth,” the demon said, still grinning.

“Well, she seems to be having fun, anyway,” Teal said. “Do you have any garlic?”

Pearl turned to frown at her. “…is that a joke?”

“Oh!” The bard clapped a hand to her face. “Oh, gods, I’m sorry, I didn’t even think… I mean, um, turnips or anything like that? She’ll really enjoy starchy things like roots, and strong flavors. If you set her to chopping onions she’ll probably just eat them unless you give her something else to snack on.”

“Ah. That’s not a bad idea,” Pearl said with a smile. “Thank you. Yes, we have garlic; I’ll get her a few cloves.”

“Hello!” Scorn said brightly.

“Wait, you do have garlic?” Toby asked.

“It’s not actually harmful to vampires,” Trissiny said. “That’s a myth. Come on, we can catch up with Shl—Scorn later. I want to speak with Malivette before it gets any closer to dark.”

“It’s not much past noon,” Juniper pointed out.

“The mistress is resting at the moment,” Pearl said, giving Trissiny a narrow look. “Between chaperoning your demon friend and contracting repairs to the manor, it has been an eventful morning.”

“That was a broad hint,” Professor Rafe explained. “Pearl is suggesting you should refrain from stirring up any further shit, being that you’ve already been less than ideal houseguests, what with all the nonsense and whatnot. She didn’t come out and say that because she’s super nice.”

“Thank you, Professor,” Pearl said, shaking her head as she strode over to a cupboard.

“I live to serve!”

“We will try to keep this conversation brief, then,” Trissiny said, turning and striding out of the room before anyone could say anything else. The others followed more slowly.

“Uh, how do you know where you’re going?” Teal asked as they ascended the stairs in the main entrance hall.

“Sense evil,” Toby murmured. “Whether or not she’s actually evil, she…registers. I could point her out exactly anywhere on the grounds.”

“Excuse me,” said Sapphire, frowning at them as they stepped into the upstairs hallway. “I know it can be easy to get turned around in here. Your rooms are in the other wing.”

“We need a word with Malivette,” Trissiny said, not slowing. “Now.”

“She is taking some time to herself,” Sapphire said more sharply, stepping in front of the paladin. “Can this wait?”

“It’s about necromancy and Veilgrad,” Trissiny replied, staring evenly at her. “Excuse me.”

“That can wait, then,” Sapphire replied, not moving an inch. “You should perhaps take some time to freshen up. Pearl will have lunch ready soon; you can talk to Malivette this evening.”

“We can also talk to her now,” Trissiny said, taking a step forward. “When it is broad daylight and we have someplace to go if Malivette doesn’t like the direction of our discussion.”

“Trissiny,” Shaeine said firmly. “You are being provocative, and very nearly rude.”

“Young lady,” Sapphire said, staring the paladin down, “it is exceedingly bad manners to impose upon your hostess in this fashion.”

“I’m sorry for that,” Trissiny replied inexorably, “truly. But this won’t wait.”

“We are perilously close to having a disagreement,” Sapphire said quietly.

“Whoah, now,” Teal exclaimed. “Peace, please! Triss…”

“Yes, I know exactly what your capabilities are,” Trissiny said, her eyes locked on Sapphire’s. “You are no threat to me, and I am no threat to Malivette, and I think you know both those things. So we’re going to go speak with her, and nobody needs to get needlessly upset.”

“Trissiny,” Toby said sharply. “Stop. We are the guests here—don’t talk to her like that.”

“Fine,” Sapphire said curtly, abruptly stepping backward. “I see war and justice leave little room for social skills. You apparently know where you’re going, then.”

“Thank you,” Trissiny said politely, nodding deeply to her. Sapphire folded her arms and wrinkled her nose disdainfully.

“Sorry,” Fross whispered loudly. “Really. She has the best intentions, I promise, she just gets worked up when things are evil.”

“There is nothing evil here,” Sapphire said bitterly, directing it at the paladin’s back rather than the pixie.

Trissiny, ignoring her, pushed open a set of double doors and stepped into the cavernous bedroom beyond. Its furnishings were carved of dark-stained wood, sparse in number and simple in design, though elaborate and clearly expensive rugs littered the floor haphazardly and the large four-poster bed was strewn with rumpled sheets of crimson satin. There were no wall decorations aside from the sconces of fairy lamps, currently unlit.

She didn’t pause, turning and striding toward another door along the wall, the others trailing along after her.

“Hang on, wait a second,” Toby said, hurrying to catch up. “I really don’t think you should burst in on—”

Ignoring him, Trissiny grasped the latch and yanked the door open, revealing a brightly-lit bathroom with brass and marble accents.

Malivette stood at the sink, wearing a bright pink bathrobe of some impossibly fluffy material. On her feet were whimsical slippers shaped like rabbits, also pink. She stood with one hand in the robe’s pocket, the other holding the end of the toothbrush currently in her mouth. Minty foam was bubbled up around her lips. The vampire stared at them quizzically, her crimson eyes wide and surprised.

“If fher a profful?” she inquired.

“Vette,” Sapphire said anxiously from behind the students, “I’m so sorry, I tried to stop them, but this pushy girl insisted…”

“If fife erfay, uffee,” Malivette said kindly. “Un fife f’gheff.”

“Can we speak to you, please?” Trissiny asked, finally looking uncertain.

Malivette finally withdrew her hand from her pocket, holding up one finger. “Uff a momum, phleef.”

While they stared, she resumed scrubbing her teeth, humming softly to herself. It went on for easily another minute; she was quite thorough. The vampire turned her back to spit in the sink and rinse her mouth.

“There!” she said brightly, turning to face them again. “Ah, much better. Let me tell you, nothing drives home the importance of oral hygiene like having to subsist on blood. Even if you like the stuff, once it starts getting all congealed…blech. And that happening between your teeth! Blargh. Bleugh! Bleughrer!”

“Why are you collecting materials and equipment for necromancy?” Trissiny demanded loudly.

“What makes you think I am?” Malivette asked pleasantly. “I mean, I’m not even going to consider the idea that you’ve been rummaging about in my personal possessions.”

“We are exceedingly sorry to impose like this,” said Shaeine, looking pointedly at Trissiny. “There are surely any number of reasons you might have need of necromantic arts, not least of which are the horses. Perhaps this conversation could have waited for a more convenient moment.”

“Yes, I suppose this may be rather jarring to you,” the vampire said, smiling with a hint of mischief. “It doesn’t really make it into the bards’ songs, for whatever reason, does it? They’re like terriers going after rats.”

“Uh, what?” Juniper asked. “Who is?”

“The Hands of Omnu are a conservative lot,” Malivette went on, nodding to Toby, “always have been. It’s all about healing and blessing wherever they happen to be. Hands of Avei have this compulsion, though. It goes well beyond just sensing evil. If there’s something nasty occurring, they go right for it, every time. Often without fully realizing what they’re doing. It’s instinct, see? You kids should listen to your friend more, especially when she seems irrationally aggressive. The obvious reason Trissiny is worked up about necromancy is I’m doing horrible, dangerous and utterly depraved necromantic experiments on the grounds.” She grinned broadly, showing off her fangs. “Wanna see?”

“Uh,” said Fross.

“Hang on a tick, lemme just change into something less comfortable.” Malivette suddenly erupted into a cloud of mist and shrieking bats; all of them stumbled reflexively back from the door, Trissiny drawing her sword. She re-formed in seconds, now wearing her customary slinky black dress. “Well, c’mon, this way!” she said brightly.

She dissolved again into silver mist, flowing like water through their legs and taking form again behind them, standing in the door and beckoning eagerly. “Come along, now! I think you’ll like this. Follow me!”

The vampire turned and skipped into the hallway, her fluffy pink bunny slippers peeking out from below the hem of her gown.


The Conclave’s embassy had not changed much in the short time since Bishop Shahai and Squad One had last visited, except with regard to personnel. The building was the same, and still guarded by Imperial soldiers; there were still petitioners in the entrance hall, and lining up outside. Now, however, there were more humans present who had clearly aligned themselves with the Conclave. They had no livery as such, at least not yet, but several of those in attendance wore badges like that sported by the man who had accosted Principia in the old spice market.

They were a disparate lot, having in common only that they were relatively young, none yet into middle years, and all physically fit. Their attire varied widely, though none seemed shabby or excessively casual. Aside from the badges, what marked them out was their bearing. These few men and women were proud, alert, and taking their jobs very, very seriously. Considering their jobs seemed so far to consist of standing around the embassy looking officious and chaperoning the various petitioners, it was an open question how long they could keep that up.

The Avenist delegation paused in the middle of the floor, conversations trailing off and eyes turning toward them. Principia looked questioningly at the Bishop, who nodded deeply to her and took a step back. Principia saluted and turned, making a beeline for the nearest individual with a Conclave badge, her squad at her heels.

“I will speak with Zanzayed the Blue,” she said sharply, coming to a halt in front of the young man. “Now. I have a personal grievance to discuss with him.”

The fellow blinked, then glanced to the side at another nearby dragonsworn, who only shrugged helplessly. He was the youngest-looking individual among their ranks, of blond Stalweiss stock, tall and broad-shouldered. Despite this, he seemed somewhat cowed by the aggressive elf before him, despite the fact that he dwarfed her, armor and all.

“Ah… I can add your name to the list,” he offered. “Of course, there are many people who wish an audience with the exalted delegates. You, um, are likely to be accorded special consideration—”

“Not good enough,” she snapped. “I’m not negotiating with you, young man. If you can’t get me to Zanzayed, get me to someone who can. You have sixty seconds.”

He finally seemed to locate his backbone, straightening up and frowning disapprovingly down at her. “Now, see here, miss—uh, Ms… Uh, soldier—”

“Sergeant,” she said caustically.

“Suppose you tell me the nature of your grievance,” he continued doggedly, “and I will convey the message. You surely can’t expect to just walk in here and talk with a dragon.”

“I’ll tell you what,” Principia said coldly, her voice even by carrying through the marble hall. “This is what you can tell Zanzayed: I am Principia Locke, of the line of the Crow, favored agent of Eserion and soldier of Avei. Zanzayed the Blue is going to answer to me, to my face, for his recent transgressions. If I’m not in front of him within five minutes, I will leave, and when I come back it’ll be with a mix of backup from those various sources I just named. And I promise you, boy, I will make very certain you are present to learn firsthand who and what a dragon does not want to challenge.”

“Uh,” he said frantically, his aplomb now disintegrating in rising panic. “I, uh—”

“That is a new approach,” purred a more musical voice. Principia stepped back from the flummoxed young dragonsworn, turning to the speaker. Gliding toward the assembled soldiers was a strikingly beautiful young woman, pale and dark-haired, wearing a flowing gown of blood-red silk. “Few people would approach dragons with threats. My congratulations, Sergeant Locke; you are the first since we came to Tiraas. I had rather expected such would come from the Empire, not…well. What’s Zanza done to you?”

“Well met,” Principia said flatly. “Whom have I the pleasure of addressing?”

“Of course, my apologies. How rude of me.” The woman curtsied, gracefully but not deeply. “I am Maiyenn, consort of Razzavinax the Red. If you will kindly leave off badgering my household staff, I will be only too glad to escort you directly to Zanzayed. It sounds as if you have very serious business indeed.” She smiled languidly, her eyes half-lidded. “I ask your pardon for the reception. Niels is actually a most admirable young man, but we are still in the process of training all our people. If you will follow me?” She gestured at the curving marble stairs, the motion smooth and elegant.

“My thanks, Lady,” Principia replied, bowing. “Lead on.”

“Oh, my,” Maiyenn said, smiling more broadly. “You actually do know some draconic etiquette. What fascinating stories you must have! I believe I shall enjoy observing this conversation.”

She led them up the stairs and down a side hall branching off from the upper landing. Bishop Shahai stepped forward to walk alongside Principia, the rest of Squad One marching on their heels. Behind them, the group left a thunderous silence; only when they passed the threshold into the corridor did muted conversations begin to rise again in the entry hall.

It was somewhat less awkward to follow Maiyenn once they were off the stairs, and her waist no longer at their eye level. The woman walked with an entirely gratuitous sway in her hips.

Their guide led them the full length of the hallway, ignoring the doors they passed. At the end, rather than terminating in a wall or a room, the hall widened into a small sitting area occupying what was clearly a tower; the space was circular, and instead of walls had paneled windows braced between gracefully fluted columns. Above, more glass panes were set into the domed roof, creating a kind of greenhouse. Fittingly, there were large potted ferns at the bases of columns, and one dwarf fig tree, with settees and chairs casually laid out between these.

There was also, incongruously, a crib on wheels pushed against one window. Maiyenn went directly to this, after giving her guests a final mysterious smile, bending over to coo softly at what lay within. The Legionnaires spared her scarcely a glance, their attention on the other individuals present.

The dragons, to judge by their eyes and hair, could be none other than Zanzayed the Blue and Razzavinax the Red. Upon Maiyenn’s arrival, Razzavinax rose from his seat to join her over the crib, giving the visitors a brief, inquisitive look in passing. He place a hand on Maiyenn’s lower back, his expression softening as he peered down at his infant child.

Even they didn’t command the soldiers’ full attention. The other person present, who had stepped away from the crib to make room for the proud parents, was a striking young woman with milky pale skin, deep black hair and peculiar crystalline eyes in an unlikely shade of aquamarine. She also had spiny bat wings and a spaded tail.

“Easy, now,” Zanzayed cautioned them, grinning idly. He made no move to rise from the settee on which he was lounging. “Rizlith is a friend.”

“Demons make poor friends,” Bishop Shahai said quietly.

“And Avenists make poor guests,” the succubus retorted. Her eyes flicked across the group, coming to rest on Ephanie, and a sultry smile unfolded across her lovely face. “As we are all poor together, why can’t we…get along?”

“Riz,” the red dragon said reprovingly. “Please don’t taunt Silver Legionnaires. In fact, don’t do anything with them. If you’re bored, I can find entertainments for you.”

“I am anything but bored, Razz,” she said idly, taking two steps back and draping her wings about her shoulders like a cloak. The demon leaned backward against the window behind her and folded her arms under her impressive bosom, deliberately emphasizing it. “This all looks to be exceedingly fascinating. You may have to send me away after all, but give a girl a chance, hmmm?”

“I assume you must know a little something of demonology,” Razzavinax said apologetically to the Bishop. “One must make allowances for the children of Vanislaas. I assure you, Rizlith is no threat to you, or to anyone here.”

“At this time,” Rizlith crooned to no one in particular.

“One must make allowances for one’s hosts,” Bishop Shahai replied smoothly, keeping her eyes on the dragon and ignoring the demon. “If you are confident you have the creature under control, no more need be said about it.”

“Well!” Zanzayed said brightly, straightening up to a sitting position and rubbing his hands together, his numerous jeweled rings flashing in the light. “Before this devolves any further, let me just say how delighted I am that you’ve accepted my invitation, Principia! I guess you found something to say to me after all!”

“Yes, I did,” she said acidly. “Quit sending people to pester me, you swaggering jackass!”

“He set himself up for that one,” Maiyenn murmured.

“He did it deliberately,” Razzavinax replied, sliding an arm around her shoulders. “Zanza has peculiar ideas about fun.”

“All right, so maybe I was a tad overbearing,” the blue acknowledged, grinning unrepentantly. “But…here you are! Can’t really fault my strategy, then, can you?”

“Your strategy,” Principia said flatly. “How many women have you had, Zanzayed?”

“Oh, my!” he said, placing his fingertips against his lips in an expression of mock horror. “You surely wouldn’t ask a gentleman to kiss and tell! And in front of these fine upstanding soldiers, no less!”

“You are old enough to have carried out some great seductions,” Principia continued unrelentingly. “Any dragon more than two centuries along has, and you’re at least as old as Arachne.”

“Older,” he said idly.

“So you understand how the game is played. So do I.”

“Why, Principia,” Zanzayed exclaimed, grinning. “How many women have you had?”

“More’n you, I bet,” she shot back. “And we both know that this is not the way to do it. You don’t gain someone’s attention or their favor by drowning them in aggressive, unfriendly solicitations. That is harassment, Zanzayed, and I’ll not stand for it.”

“Are you going to let her talk to me like that?” he asked Bishop Shahai.

“If it comes down to it,” she said mildly, “I’m going to let her punch you.” Maiyenn laughed in pure delight.

“Prin, my dear, you’ve got me all wrong,” Zanzayed protested, spreading his hands innocently. “As I told you before, this is a simple matter of family concern. I have nothing but the highest regard for your bloodline, and you’re a particularly famous example of it! How could I do anything but extend to you every possible courtesy?”

“I am not blind to the fact that there are anti-dragon activists at work in Tiraas,” Principia said coldly.

“Anti-dragon activists,” Maiyenn repeated, her voice oozing disdain. “More correctly called ash stains in training.” Rizlith giggled.

“And I am not dumb enough to fail to see what you’re doing,” Prin continued. “Painting a target for them on my head is an extremely hostile act, Zanzayed.”

“You seem absolutely determined to ascribe the worst possible motivations to me, no matter what I say,” he replied in a mournful tone. “I’m starting to wonder if I have been mistaken. It doesn’t look like we’re going to have a productive discussion, here.”

“On the subject of my bloodline,” she replied with a cold smile, “Mary the Crow is in Tiraas.”

“No, she isn’t,” he shot back, with the same expression. “She was in Tiraas.”

“Want to know how quickly I can find her?”

“Exactly as quickly as everyone else can,” he replied, grinning. “If anything, less. Look, Principia, you’ve clearly got this all worked up in your mind so that I’m out to get you, and just as clearly you’ve brought your friends, here, on board.”

“I am guided by my own reasoning,” Bishop Shahai said serenely. “I have chosen to allow Principia to make this a personal issue because that will cause far less trouble than what will occur if I’m forced to address your treatment of a Legionnaire under my command in an official capacity.”

“They do bluster, don’t they?” Maiyenn mused.

“And here I thought these Legionnaires would be boring,” Rizlith said, her tail waving excitedly. “Elves aside, this is statistically the straightest group of Avenist women I’ve ever seen together in a room. They must have the faith’s officially dullest barracks.”

“Both of you, cease,” Razzavinax ordered, his voice quiet but firm. “Zanzayed is capable of being more than provocative enough for all of us.”

“Well, I’m gonna have to let you down, then, Razz.” The blue finally stood, and bowed extravagantly to Principia. “I give you my word, upon my honor, Principia Locke: I mean no ill to you or yours. I will not harm you, nor suffer you to be harmed if it is up to me to prevent it. Does that satisfy you?”

She pursed her lips. “Is there a single reason it should?”

Zanzayed’s monochrome eyes made it impossible to tell when he was rolling them, so he threw his entire head backward melodramatically, letting out a long groan. “You just can’t win with some people!”

“You want to make progress here?” Principia said coldly. “Quit sending people out to pester me.”

“Is that really all you want?” he said with a sigh. “All right, fine. Done. Is there anything else I can do for you, while you’re here?”

She stared at him in silence for a long moment, then turned and looked inquisitively at the Bishop.

“If you’ve no further business, Sergeant, I am content with this, for now.” Shahai smiled languidly. “This has been an extremely instructive meeting.”

Aside from the other members of Squad One, who remained woodenly stiff at attention, all those present smiled at one another with eyes like daggers.

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Several hours later, a confused and increasingly frustrated Squad One found themselves at Bishop Shahai’s modest apartment not far from Imperial Square, laden down with bags and packages. It was actually quite the achievement to have found a modest apartment this close to the seat of Imperial power, as the real estate here was some of the most expensive in the world. Most people who had the need or desire to be that close to the Palace (or the Grand Cathedral, or the central Omnist or Avenist temples) and the money to move in wanted something larger and more luxurious anyway. There were a number of clerics who preferred proximity to their temples, however, and as such there were buildings owned by the Church and several of the major cults, divided into humble dwellings that suited the desires of their occupants.

Hers was a simple one-story affair that couldn’t have been more than a handful of rooms, to judge by the fact that its kitchen and main living area were all one open space. A space which was cozy verging on cramped with all six of them present; they were packed in close enough to be reminded how much bulk armor added to a person.

“Just put those down wherever it’s least inconvenient, please,” the Bishop directed them. “Then have a seat. I don’t entertain much; I apologize for the lack of comfortable chairs. Feel free to pull one over from the table if you need. I’m going to make us some tea.”

They obeyed slowly, setting down bags and paper-wrapped packages as neatly as possible against the walls, out of the way of the furniture, looking warily around all the while. The furniture was bland and could have come with the place, though personal touches had been added. Soft elven blankets woven of geometric patterns had been draped over the small sofa and single armchair, and on the mantle stood a golden eagle idol—stone, not gold, of course—with several strings of carved beads draped around its heavy base and hanging over the lip of the mantlepiece itself. The only article of really unique furniture was a display case containing a peculiar variety of things behind glass: a broken Avenic short sword, two ornately carved tomahawks, a battered shield bearing the golden eagle, several small leather pouches, and four glittering unicorn horns.

Bishop Shahai moved efficiently about the stove, preparing a pot to heat and setting up a tray with cups, sugar, and other paraphernalia, her back to them. Straightening up from setting down a folded package of expensive silk cloth, Merry scowled at Principia, leaned closer and opened her mouth to whisper.

Prin thrust a finger into her face, glaring, and pointedly tugged at her ear. Merry snapped her mouth shut and contented herself with looking disgruntled.

“Private Elwick, you’re closest,” Shahai said over the soft clink of crockery. “There’s a plate of sandwiches in the cold box, top shelf. Would you kindly set them on the table? And the rest of you, dig in. Tea will be ready in a few moments, I’m sure you’re hungry.”

“Do you…commonly have plates of sandwiches ready for guests, your Grace?” Ephanie asked in a carefully demure tone.

“No,” Shahai replied with an amused little smile, finally turning back to face them. Casey passed between her and the group, obediently carrying a platter stacked with ham sandwiches to the table. “I specifically have one ready. At this point in the evening I expect you all to be rather tired, and increasingly fed up with me. Food and strong tea make a good pick-me-up; we’ll need this little respite before finishing our tasks for the evening.”

“You planned this?” Farah inquired.

“I plan ahead as much as possible, in as much detail as possible, for all situations,” the Bishop said serenely, pulling out a chair and seating herself. “Thank you, Elwick. Please, all of you, sit down. Yes, Szaravid, according to my schedule, by this point in the evening Squad One has spent several hours accompanying me hither and yon to a variety of luxury shopping establishments, standing guard while I browsed and carrying my purchases. I’m aware of the relationship this squad had with Bishop Syrinx, at least the broad strokes; I can only imagine how irate you must be by this point. My compliments on your poise, by the way.”

“I assumed all this was mission relevant, somehow,” Principia said mildly, helping herself to a ham sandwich.

“Oh?” Shahai raised an eyebrow.

“The accumulation of luxury and misuse of temporary authority over a squad would be dramatically out of character, your Grace. I know something of your record as well; you were quite right about Bishop Syrinx. It seemed wise to cultivate an awareness of her successor.”

“I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised,” Shahai said, smiling. “Well, in any case, this building is owned by the Universal Church, its apartments rented to various clerics. The walls are exceedingly thick, and additionally bolstered with noise dampening enchantments. It’s a very discreet sort of building. This marks the first point in the evening where we can converse in guaranteed privacy. My apologies for making you wait, but the whole point of our performance this far tonight has been just that: a performance, put on for whoever might have been watching. I was unwilling to make assumptions about the security of our environs except in—ah, excuse me.”

The teapot had begun whistling; she stood and glided briskly back to the stove. The assembled Legionnaires glanced uncertainly about at one another, then at Principia, who was chewing away as placidly as if she hadn’t a care in the world.

Shahai returned, setting the tea tray beside the sandwiches and beginning to pour out cups. “Eat or not as you wish, ladies, but I do insist upon the tea. This is a very strong blend, and just the boost we will all need, as we are about to go deal with dragons at the end of an already long day. Please, use as much sugar and milk as you need to make it palatable. If anyone is especially fatigued, I have something even stronger for emergencies. Have you heard of coffee?”

She looked up in surprise at the chorus of groans; Principia chuckled into her sandwich.

“That’s the stuff that tastes like the inside of my boots, keeps you awake for about four hours and then you’re suddenly comatose standing up unless you take another dose,” Merry said, accepting a cup of tea. “Sarge gave us that once.”

“Once,” Principia emphasized, “when I’d kept them out past midnight. Generally I think you get better results from people by letting them get enough rest.”

“I quite agree,” Shahai said, smiling. “Drugs are a poor substitute for any of the things for which people substitute them, but they can bridge the gap in a rough situation. Well, then, on to a much-overdue explanation. What do you know about dragonsworn?”

There was a beat of silence; Farah paused in the act of sipping her tea, staring at the Bishop in surprise.

“People who are sworn to a dragon,” Ephanie replied at last, “just as the word says. I understood that wasn’t common.”

“It’s uncommon for the simple reason that dragons are uncommon,” Shahai said, “and many of them are rather standoffish. But yes, as long as dragons have interacted with the mortal races, some members thereof have dedicated themselves to a certain dragon’s service. In fact, with the Conclave’s current ambitions, I suspect this will be the greatest sticking point in their negotiations with the Empire. Now that they seek to be acknowledged as an independent government, anyone taken into their service will effectively become an agent, if not a citizen, of a foreign power, rather than an eccentric who keeps unusual company. I’m actually quite curious to find out how they will resolve the matter, because at the moment, I’ve no idea. But yes, dragonsworn are a known phenomenon, and their whereabouts are carefully watched by anyone who takes an interest in world events. Including the Sisters of Avei.”

“I figured,” Principia said, pausing to take a sip of tea. “Accumulating expensive hoard-worthy trinkets was an obvious link to the dragon issue. You think there are dragonsworn in the city? It was my understanding the dragons arrived alone.”

“Ah, yes, the…trinkets.” Shahai sighed, giving the piles of packages a disapproving stare. “I am sorry about putting you ladies to that kind of work. But yes, Sergeant, people are already lining up outside the de facto Conclave embassy, wanting a variety of things. Some—perhaps more than a few—are interested in working for the dragons. They have that aura of majesty that tends to inspire such responses. Beyond that, however, there have always been some few dragonsworn in the city, and somewhat less few who are known to do business with them. This afternoon we have visited most of those. These comprise more of a grapevine than an actual intelligence network, but I don’t imagine it will be long before our draconic visitors are aware that I have just gathered a pile of…hoard-worthy trinkets, as you put it.” She paused to smile at Principia.

“People from all walks of life, but notably the wealthy and powerful, will be trying to curry favor with the dragons for a variety of reasons, most of which are no concern to us. My mission here is simply to establish open lines of communication and friendly terms with them, to ward off any potential hostilities and create opportunities for possible future benefit. A vague and simple directive, which nonetheless is made quite challenging by the fact that the dragons have no incentive to take us seriously at all. Virtually the only interaction between dragons and the Sisterhood in eight thousand years have been occasional clashes between individuals and Hands of Avei. Most of those ended in the fatality of one or the other. In this, it’s fortunate for us that they have no particular interest in our cult. What I have to do is make them interested, and favorably so.”

“A tall order,” Principia mused.

“Indeed,” Shahai said wryly. “This afternoon’s errands were the first half of the plan, though it may take some time for word to get back to our targets. This evening’s will finish the job. We discussed earlier the impact of having two elves in the delegation sent to speak with them. When we meet the dragons themselves, I intend to be vague; the point is to set them wondering what we are up to. To set us apart from the countless petitioners who will be competing for a slice of their attention. They, if all goes well, will come to us. As such, once we return tonight, I mean to withdraw somewhat and give them time to stew. If no overtures have been made within a week, we’ll try something else, but apart from that, your squad will return to regular duty rotation to be called for when I have need of you again. With the exception of tomorrow,” she added with a smile. “I’ve reserved you for the morning. Do get some sleep.”

“We appreciate that,” Principia said approvingly.

“Ah, your Grace?” Casey said. “It’s…dark out. Almost everything is closed by now. People will be going to sleep. Is this an appropriate time to visit dragons?”

“All part of the plan, Elwick,” Shahai said, sipping her tea. “Dragons… It’s an open question whether they need to sleep, or just indulge in it occasionally for the pleasure of dreaming. Regardless, they can do it for days at a time, even weeks, but generally only do so two or three times a year. They won’t be in bed. Most people don’t know this, so we won’t have to fight through a crowd. And they assuredly know what a peculiar time of day this is for us to be making social calls.”

“Thus contributing to the infamy you’re cultivating,” Principia said with a smile. “Apologies for any perceived brown-nosing, Bishop, but you’re good at this.”

“At this?” Shahai stared ruminatively into her tea. “This has never been done. Let’s hope we all prove to be good at it. In any case, ladies, finish up here. We are not in any hurry.”


 

The hastily repurposed palace currently housing the Conclave delegation stood not far from Imperial Square, in a residential neighborhood that was wealthy in the manner that the sea was damp. These were the homes of the highest ranking officials of the Imperial government, the various cults and the Universal Church, not to mention the residences of foreign ambassadors and several properties kept by heads of state from overseas. Some of these actually visited with some regularity—the Tiraan Empire did not seek anyone’s favor, but waited for seekers to come to it—while others maintained these properties simply as a point of status. No official embassies stood here, though flags of many countries were displayed and no small amount of diplomatic business had been done behind these walls. None of the buildings on this street could truly be called a house. They ranged from mere mansions at the lower end to palaces which had prompted the current Emperor’s mother to pass laws limiting just how defensible non-Imperial structures in the city could be made.

This one was of an older style, all done in white marble with fluted columns—in fact, it ironically resembled an Avenist temple, if one ignored the highly decorative stonework. Imperial soldiers stood guard on the grounds in significant numbers, almost as if the government expected some kind of attack. Or perhaps they were simply keeping the peace. Whatever the reason, every entrance and ground floor window was covered, as well as the gates of the property itself. More soldiers patrolled the grounds, the outer wall, even the roof.

There were two long banners hanging in gaps between columns flanking the front door. They formed a white field with a divided hexagon in the center, split into six colors: blue, green, red, gold, silver, and black. A peculiar sigil lay over that, in white with a black border that distinguished itself from the background. The symbol didn’t appear to depict anything in particular; it looked more like a glyph in some foreign language.

“Looks almost like a wing,” Farah murmured. “See, the—”

“Scenery,” Bishop Shahai said, quietly but pointedly. Farah instantly fell silent, staring straight ahead. Principia gave her a very sharp look.

Rank had its privileges; the soldiers on duty at the gate saluted the Bishop rather than attempting to stop her. She nodded back in perfect calm, striding up the slightly curving path toward the doors with Principia just behind and to her right and the rest of Squad One forming the four corners of an invisible box around them.

The soldiers at the door saluted, as well, but made no move to usher them in. Principia stepped forward to pull the door open herself.

Within, the palace looked suitably wealthy, but also rather bare. Everything was marble trimmed in gilt, with an extravagantly frescoed dome forming the entry hall’s ceiling and a geometric mosaic for a floor. There was no furniture, though, of any kind, not even rugs or curtains. Apparently the new residents had brought nothing with them, and the old had left nothing behind.

There were more banners, however. These were also white, lacking the multicolored hexagon, but there were six of them and each bore the sigil in one of the draconic colors.

At this hour, the property was relatively quiet. A few people were present in the room; two more Imperial Army officers stood silently at attention, a mixed handful of folk in nondescript attire loitered near the walls, and a portly man in his later middle years in an obviously expensive suit was in the process of crossing the space toward two figures who had just entered from a side door.

Both were dragons.

To judge by their obviously displayed colors, these were Zanzayed and Varsinostro, and two less similarly attired people had rarely stood together. The blue dragon was an almost comical portrait of less-than-tasteful opulence, while the green wore simple wood elf attire. Nonetheless, their presence was arrestingly powerful, even ignoring the people present as they were. A tremor rippled through the onlookers at their entrance, several people letting out soft sighs or murmured observations.

The Avenist party had crossed the room at a sharp pace, and were just barely beaten to intercepting the dragons by the rich man, thanks to his head start.

“Your Eminences,” he said, bowing low and doffing his stovepipe hat, “if I might—”

“Good evening,” Bishop Shahai spoke over him, striding forward.

“Good lady,” the man said in indignation, puffing his chest out at her, “kindly wait your—”

He broke off as Ephanie stepped in front of him, planting the butt of her lance on the floor with a thunk that echoed through the bare chamber, staring flatly from behind her faceguard. The fellow gaped at her, then flushed and stepped backward, muttering something that might have passed for polite.

“Well, this is different,” Zanzayed the Blue commented, smiling in a way that might have been sincere or sarcastic. Something about his featureless eyes made his expression hard to read. The green dragon, who had come to a stop beside him, folded his arms and watched, his face a mask of patience.

“I am Nandi Shahai, Bishop of the Universal Church from the Sisters of Avei,” she said, nodding to them. It was a deep, respectful nod, but clearly the sort of gesture bestowed on an equal, not a being of fathomless, catastrophic power. “Welcome to Tiraas.”

“Thank you, your Grace,” Varsinostro said evenly. “We have found the city most welcoming, with some few specific exceptions.”

“Why, Principia!” Zanzayed exclaimed, grinning in apparent delight. “I must say, this is the greatest and best surprise I’ve had in a whole day of surprises! When did you join the Silver Legions? That’s got to be one of the crazier things I’ve ever heard. Well, regardless, it’s a delight to see you!”

“It is?” Principia asked, nonplussed.

“I wasn’t aware you knew Zanzayed, Sergeant Locke,” Shahai said in a perfectly pleasant tone. The warning was hidden in the awareness of their orders, invisible to onlookers.

“We’ve never met,” Principia said firmly. “I’m positive I would’ve remembered that hairdo.”

“Oh, it’s all secondhand,” Zanzayed said with an airy wave of his hand, rings glittering in the light. “I’ve heard all about you, of course. You might say I’m an old friend of the family,” he added to Shahai, winking. “We really ought to find the time to sit down for a chat, since we’re both in the city!”

“I don’t talk to my family,” Principia said in a tone that was just a hair too polite to be overtly unfriendly.

“I note that your Conclave’s chosen iconography reflects all six draconic colors,” Shahai remarked. “There have been no silver or black dragons for some time, if I am not mistaken.”

“The Conclave is for all of our kind,” Varsinostro stated. “Present and future. We would not have any potential members excluded even by implication. In particular, those…extremes…would better be brought into the fold to deal with the rest of us socially than left to pursue their own ends, unfettered.”

“I see,” the Bishop mused. “That does make sense.”

“To what do we owe this unexpected pleasure, your Grace?” the green dragon asked pointedly.

“I’m certain you know the areas of Avei’s interest,” Shahai said crisply. “We promote justice and protect the interests of women. As you have decided to assertively join civilized society, this creates a potential interest, my lords. Any actions you take will fall under the purview of the judicial system. And dragons have a…fraught history with regard to women.”

“Ah, yes,” Zanzayed said solemnly, folding his hands. “That. You mean that thing where we sometimes take mates and lovers exactly like anyone else, and mortal societies regard the matter with revulsion because… Well, actually, I never have cared enough to figure out what the specific objection was, once I determined there was no actual logic in it.”

Shahai smiled at him very pleasantly. “On another subject, Zanzayed, have you visited Mathenon Province recently? I believe dwarven archaeologists recently unearthed some very unusual ruins directly off the Old Road between Viridill and Stavulheim. Some sort of amphitheater.”

He sighed dramatically, turning to Varsinostro. “There, you see? This is why religious people are a pain to deal with. Every nice thing you do gets swept under the rug, but you make one little error in judgment and somehow their descendants manage to shove it in your face after two thousand years.”

“Let’s be polite, Zanzayed,” Varsinostro said calmly. “We are guests in this city as much as the Bishop is in this house.” Despite the muted warning directed at both of them, his expression was one of amusement.

“Did you really come here just to be confrontational?” Zanzayed asked, impatience creeping into his tone as he turned back to Shahai.

Her smile wavered not by a hair. “On the contrary, Lord Zanzayed, if anything, I would like to offer my services. You may find it…challenging…to cultivate personal relationships among human society, given the reputation you have with regard to women, justly or not. The Sisterhood is in a unique position to help you navigate these waters. Please don’t hesitate to contact me if you would like any assistance in settling in.”

“How very considerate,” Varsinostro said, gazing intently at her.

“It is the duty of a priestess and a soldier to serve,” Shahai intoned, bowing. “I will take no more of your time this evening, my lords. Welcome, again, to Tiraas. Squad, fall in.”

“Wait, that’s it?” Zanzayed asked behind them. The Bishop simply kept moving toward the door.

Not that the dragons were left with nothing to do. They had gotten scarcely a few feet when the gentleman in the hat surged forward again. Once again, he was beaten to the punch.

This time it was a young Sifanese woman who slid smoothly forward, holding a glowing rune on the flat of her open palm. It sparked faintly, then abruptly transformed into a steaming platter.

At the burst of magic—and rare magic at that, for transfiguration was usually done only by a master mage, the pre-formatted kind being very expensive—both dragons turned to stare sharply at her.

“Good evening, most exalted ones,” she said deferentially. In addition to her lilting accent, she had a raspy quality to her voice, not quite the husky tone of a lifelong smoker, but as if something had injured her throat at one point. “My employer, like each of these good people, most humbly craves but a moment of your attention, and does not presume to so impose without offering some small recompense for the distraction. I understand, Lord Zanzayed, these are a favorite of yours.”

Shahai led the squad outside, the front doors of the palace shutting firmly and cutting off sound from within. They heard only one more line of the girl’s spiel.

“Bacon-wrapped shrimp?”

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9 – 1

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The Imperial Guard were well familiar with Underminister Darouzheh, which undoubtedly saved his life when he burst in on the Emperor and Empress having a state lunch with the Sifanese ambassador. Indeed, the fact that he was well known around the Imperial Palace was the only reason he could have possibly been permitted to dash pell-mell through its halls the way he apparently had, to judge by his breathless state of near-collapse upon entering.

Instantly, five staves were pointing at him, humming audibly with conjured destruction waiting to be unleashed. More guards moved to cover the windows and doors in case of further intruders, while the currently present Hand of the Emperor placed himself between his liege and the intruder so rapidly he almost appeared to have teleported.

Darouzheh completely ignored all of this.

“Your Majesties,” he gasped, doubling over. His paunchy frame was clearly not designed for the kind of exertion he had just experienced. “Emergency! Dragons!”

With that, he slumped forward, panting so hard he could barely stand. The guards powered down and lowered their weapons, the nearest actually stepping over to gently brace the Underminister lest he collapse entirely. At a flick of the Empress’s fingers, a maid darted forward to pour a carafe of water, which she carried to the gasping bureaucrat.

Sharidan had risen to his feet, gently moving the Hand aside with a touch to his shoulder. Ambassador Fujimatsu finally set down his teacup, studying the scene with admirable calm.

“That,” Eleanora said flatly, “is an unacceptable combination of words.”


 

“Dragons,” Darling said, “and chaos.”

“That’s a bad combination of words,” McGraw noted.

“Don’t I know it,” the Bishop replied, his expression serious. “Unfortunately, that’s not the scary part.”

“How is that not the scary part?” Billie demanded. “Why is there always a scarier part?”

They sat in the comfortable downstairs parlor in the Bishop’s home, Darling in his customary seat at the head of the coffee table, the others around it. No one had yet commented on Mary’s absence from the group, but it was even more palpable than her presence. When she was there, she had a way of quietly deflecting attention from herself.

“This is all I’ve been getting out of the Archpope’s oracular resources for the last week,” Darling continued. “You probably know how it is with oracles—or you may not, Justinian does seem to have a good percentage of them squirreled away. It’s all ‘that from beyond which is not,’ and ‘the titans of two forms,’ and an innumerable throng of vague metaphors to that effect. These things are difficult to read at the best of times; it took me a solid day’s work to suss out the consistent themes. Dragons, and chaos.”

“I think I see what the scary part is,” Joe murmured. “Now, granted, all I know about oracles is from readin’, and most of what I’ve read I suspect is more fictional than it liked to pretend, but any event in which all the oracles shut down and refuse to talk about anything but a coming disaster…”

“Yes,” Darling said, nodding at him. “In fact, that’s more than just common sense. This is a recognized apocalyptic portent.”

“Never staved off an apocalypse,” Billie said thoughtfully. “Bet that’s a feather in the ol’ cap, an’ no mistake.”

“Sounds like a titanic pain in the ass even for those who survive it,” Weaver grunted. “Who else knows about this?”

“And now we come to the complicating factor,” Darling said with a sigh. “Obviously, Justinian knows. There are the other Bishops who have access to his oracles, too; I don’t know how frequently any of them make use of the resource, but if they’ve tried in the last week, they know. None of them have mentioned it to me. What the Empire does or does not know I can’t be sure. I passed the warning on to the Hand of the Emperor with whom I work, and was told that the matter had been foreseen a good long time ago and the Empire has resources in place.” He shrugged.

“Just who are these other Bishops?” Joe asked.

“Don’t worry about that,” Darling said, waving a hand. “Justinian’s the one who demands our attention.”

“I’m sorry, Mr. Darling,” Joe replied very evenly, “but we are well past the point of that bein’ an acceptable answer.”

A momentary silence fell, Darling lifting his eyebrows in an expression of mild surprise. Standing by the door, Price shifted her head infinitesimally, focusing her attention on Joe.

“After that stunt you pulled this spring,” the Kid continued, staring at the Bishop, “I am just about done gettin’ the runaround from you. Pardon my pushiness, but when I ask for details, you provide details or I walk out.”

Weaver snorted softly. Billie raised an eyebrow, turning to regard the Bishop expectantly.

“Well,” Darling said with a slight smile. “Upon reflection, I really don’t have any counter to that, do I? Fair enough. Not that I think it’s any concern of yours and I am possibly risking clerical censure by sharing the details, but the Bishops of Avei, Shaath and Izara also have access to the Church’s hidden oracles.”

“That,” McGraw mused, “is a right peculiar assortment.”

“Bishop Syrinx has been off in Viridill on some Avenist business for the last few weeks,” Darling continued, “and I dismiss Varanus and Snowe from consideration because I’ve had indication several times before that both are fully behind his Holiness in whatever he chooses to do. Anyhow, this leads us back to the problem at hand, and what we intend to do about it.”

“Dragons and chaos,” Billie mused, kicking her legs idly. Sitting on the edge of the loveseat as she was, her feet didn’t nearly reach the floor. “Well, it does bring to mind an obvious answer, dunnit? Shame that’s almost certainly an ol’ wives’ tale.”

“Y’mean Belosiphon?” McGraw replied. “Or however you pronounce it.”

“You said it correctly,” Weaver said, rolling his eyes. “Which is kind of impressive when it comes to any dragon’s name. Tell me, Elias, does this ‘confused old man’ act usually succeed in deflecting suspicion?”

“Sorry, sonny,” McGraw said innocently, tugging his earlobe. “You’ll have to speak up, I’m a mite deaf on this side.”

“Yeah, well, point being,” Billie said with a grin, “we’re talkin’ about a legend from the time of the Elder Gods. You’re a bard, Damian, you know as well as I that any tale from that long ago’s not gonna have more’n a smidge of fact in its lineage.”

“Don’t use my first name,” Weaver growled.

“Yes, quite so,” Darling said, nodding seriously. “It’s inconceivable that there could really have been a chaos dragon, and the story is so old and from a time of such confusion that it’s just not sensible to give it any credence. So, imagine my surprise when I learned that the Church has specific records of Belosiphon, and knows roughly where his skull is buried.”

“Typical,” Joe muttered.

“Are you rubbin’ me ankles?” Billie demanded.

“I…have no idea,” Darling said, blinking.

Weaver shrugged. “Doesn’t particularly surprise me. One of the gods is chaos-tainted; why not a dragon? If anything, the odd thing is how no dragons since have ended up that way.”

“Nothin’ odd about that,” McGraw said. “Dragons tend to be wiser sorts than the average run of mortals, even before they’ve lived a few thousand years. Takes somebody exceptionally stupid to meddle with the powers of chaos.”

“Which is precisely the issue,” Darling said firmly. “Everytime a significant chaos artifact has surfaced, some imbecile made a good effort at seizing and using it. You being adventurers, I’m sure you know most of those stories, and how they ended. With the oracles giving warning, we can make two solid assumptions: at the intersection of ‘dragons’ and ‘chaos’ is Belosiphon the Black, and action has to be taken to prevent someone from meddling with his skull. It’s in the northernmost region of Upper Stalwar Province. That’s right about where the plains meet the desert in a particularly unappetizing little corner of flat scrubland, just below the foothills where the Dwarnskolds and the Stalrange intersect.”

“I’ve been there,” McGraw said, nodding. “The Badlands. Beautiful country, if you don’t have to live in it.”

“There’s actually a place called the Badlands?” Weaver said scornfully.

“Aye,” Billie replied with a grin. “After tryin’ to keep their butts alive in it, the residents were too worn out to think of anythin’ more poetic.”

“Here’s where it gets even more interesting,” Darling continued, his expression grim. “I’ve been rooting around in every official record I could find, both Church and Imperial. The actual location of Belosiphon’s skull is not known, merely the general region, but there are hints that more precise records do exist. It is worth mentioning, here, that I do not have access to all of Justinian’s hidden archives. Second, the Empire has almost no presence in the area. Third, this is mining country. Silver, copper, turquoise and coal. It was hit almost as hard as the dwarven kingdoms by the Narisian treaty and all those shipments of free Underworld ore, but people do still dig there. And prospect.”

“What better way to stumble across buried horrors,” Joe murmured, staring at the table.

“Justinian has not mentioned anything about it to me,” Darling continued, “nor I to him. He surely would have…unless this is to be another act in our ongoing cold war of misinformation.”

“And if he had the same idea you did,” McGraw said, frowning, “who better to send after something like this than adventurers?”

“Which means,” Weaver growled, “Khadizroth and the Jackal. And whoever else he’s rounded up.”

“Peachy!” Billie said, grinning psychotically and cracking her knuckles. “I have been just itchin’ fer another crack at those two assholes.”

“Not to be a wet blanket,” said Joe, “but we fought them to a bare stalemate last time, and that was with the aid of our most powerful member, who is not even here.”

A glum silence descended upon the room.

“Justinian’s silence on the matter does strongly indicate to me that he is going to use his adventurers,” Darling said gravely. “There are things he keeps from me, but he had to know I would discover what the oracles were doing. This is the only topic on which we remain mutually silent, both knowing that we both know what’s going on. So yes, what we are talking about here is sending you off to contend with the dragon and the assassin, not to mention whoever else—because I haven’t a clue who else he might have found—with the quest for an artifact of unspeakable danger as the backdrop and battlefield. I’ve gotta level with you, folks: this is above and beyond the call. If you don’t want to go, I’ll not hold you in violation of our agreement. I will still be at work getting your answers, though I’m afraid that has to wait until the oracles start speaking again.”

“Hell with that,” Billie snorted. “We’re in. Let’s skip the part where we all go ’round the table and agree—you all know damn well you all want your payback, fer a variety o’ reasons. But Joe’s got the right of it. We need to find Mary. Anybody got a clue where she is?”

“All I know,” Darling said, “is that another elf came here looking for her a few weeks back.”

“Who?” Joe asked.

“Nobody I knew,” Darling said with a shrug. “She was sent by Professor Tellwyrn, though. Elder Sheyann, I think her name was.”

“Tellwyrn?” Weaver said, narrowing his eyes.

“Did you say Sheyann?” Joe exclaimed.

“Ah, yes, I did,” Darling said, looking at him oddly. “Don’t tell me you know her.”

“Well, I don’t so much know her, but you don’t grow up in Sarasio without hearing the name. She’s the most senior of the Elders in the nearby grove.”

“Huh,” Darling mused. “Well. That gives us two places to start looking for Mary: Sarasio and Last Rock. Because, to be frank, we have a good bit of preparatory work to do before setting off on this particular adventure. Quite apart from the need to catch the Crow, there’s the question of what to do with the skull of Belosiphon itself. Pretty much the only certainty is that Justinian cannot be allowed to get his grabbers on it.”

“We could hand it over to the Empire?” Joe suggested.

“Assuming we can even handle something like that,” Weaver said. “Chaos is not healthy to be around.”

“Also,” Darling said firmly, “with all respect to his Majesty’s government, it is a government. I will sleep better it it does not get its hands on this slice of unimaginable destructive power. And I sure as hell don’t want the thing. I have to admit I’m against a wall here, my friends. This is outside the purview of either a thief or a priest. How do you dispose of a chaos artifact?”

“Destroy it,” said Joe.

“Very bad idea,” McGraw said emphatically. “You destroy a thing like that, and what you’re left with is pieces of said thing. Do your job well, reduce it to dust and smoke, and it disseminates into the air, the ground, the water, tainting the whole region for… Who knows? Centuries, millennia, maybe forever. Or you may get bigger pieces, which sure as the tides will get strewn to the four corners of the earth to work a thousand smaller mischiefs until some giftedly sinister idjit goes on an epic quest to gather ’em all up and ruin everyone’s day.”

“Okay,” Joe said slowly. “So, no destroying. That was my last idea. Sorry.”

“It’s simple enough,” said Weaver. “We’ll take it to Arachne.”

They all stared at him.

“Are you quintessentially outta your gourd?” Billie demanded. “Of all the people who does not need to get her hands on a chaos artifact—”

“I’m talking about the only person who probably should,” Weaver shot back. “Let’s face it, by any standard you could choose to apply, Arachne is a giant bitch.”

“Now, see here,” Joe began, scowling.

“For that reason,” Weaver continued loudly, “she doesn’t get nearly enough credit. Most of the world has no idea how many times she’s rescued it from the brink. With regard to chaos artifacts in particular, she’s already got two. Arachne Tellwyrn owns the Book of Chaos and the Mask of Calomnar. She’s got them both tucked away in a sealed pocket dimension where nobody can get at them and they can’t affect the mortal plane. In fact, she found the Book of Chaos twice, and made this particular setup after someone dug it up from its first hiding place. She has the sense not to meddle with chaos and the power to secure it. It’s simple. We take the skull to Arachne, and neither the Church nor the Empire nor anybody else will ever see the damn thing again.”

“Well,” McGraw mused, “that sounds like a workable solution, indeed, if you don’t pause to consider how irate the lady will be to have a thing like that dropped on her doorstep.”

“Omnu’s balls, we’re not gonna just drop it at the University,” Weaver said scathingly. “Arachne’s one of our leads in tracking down Mary anyway, right? So we go to Last Rock, ask if she’s seen the Crow and tell her what’s up so she knows to prepare a place for Belosiphon’s skull. She might even help retrieve it.”

“Tellwyrn is not going to cross the Church’s agents directly,” Darling said, frowning. “Her carefully protected neutrality wouldn’t survive that; she won’t risk her students’ safety by dragging the University into world politics. For that reason, we will tell her the whole situation, so she doesn’t accidentally stumble into that, blame us for tricking her and blast us all to ashes.”

“I like this plan,” Billie said brightly. “Anything that ends with me not gettin’ blasted to ash is aces in my book!”

“I’ll have to sit that stretch of it out,” McGraw said with a rueful grin. “I’m already on record as getting’ the ash treatment if I show my face in Last Rock.”

“What’d you do?” Joe said, frowning.

“Well, it’s a long—”

The old wizard broke off suddenly, grabbing his staff and half-rising. Joe bounded to his feet in the same moment. Price, by the door, suddenly zipped across the room to hover protectively over Darling’s shoulder.

“What?” the Bishop demanded, looking around at them. “What’s going on?”

“Someone has just teleported into the house, your Grace,” Price said in a low voice.

Weaver also got to his feet, scowling and placing a hand on his holstered wand. Billie stood up on the loveseat, tucking both hands into pouches at her belt.

There came a sharp knock at the closed door of the parlor.

Darling raised his eyebrows. “Come in?”

The door opened, and a young woman in Army uniform stepped in and saluted. Her insignia had a blue eye behind the standard Imperial gryphon, the mark of a Tiraan battlemage.

“Pardon the interruption, your Grace,” she said in a clipped tone. “Your presence is urgently requested at the Palace by Lord Vex.”

“What’s going on?” Darling demanded, rising.

The mage glanced briefly but pointedly around the group. “My orders are to teleport you to the Palace, your Grace,” she said in a level tone. “I’m sure you will be fully briefed once there.”

“Ominous,” Weaver said.

“Well, my friends, I guess we’ll have to continue this conversation later,” said Darling, stepping carefully around McGraw and toward the Army mage. “In fact, though… Given the time frame involved, please go ahead and pursue the avenue we were just discussing. We’ll regroup tomorrow, or whenever you get back, hopefully all with more information. All right, Lieutenant, I’m all yours. Let’s go see what’s so urgent, shall we?”


 

“We’re receiving up-to-the-minute reports via telescroll,” General Panissar said. “Based on their flight path, this gate seems the most probable point of arrival. They are unmistakably making for Tiraas.”

“What can you tell me about the path they have taken, General?” the Lady asked.

“Oddly meandering,” Panissar said with a frown. “We are tentatively not considering this an attack. Dragons can be upon you from miles away before you know they’re even in the province, if that’s what they want. These four have been gliding all the way from north of Calderaas, tracking back and forth as if to deliberately waste time. Lord Vex is of the opinion that they want to be seen, to give us time to prepare.”

“Lord Vex is correct,” she replied, nodding. Lady Asfaneh Shavayad was a stately woman in her middle years, and apparently the leading expert on dragons in the Imperial Diplomatic Corps. That was the only explanation Panissar had been given as to why she was in command of this operation. Standing calmly in the main gate to the fortified border town, which she had insisted would remain open, she glanced around at the assembled soldiers, clearly considering them even as she continued to speak. “This is their custom when approaching one another, as well. It is a sign that they come in peace, seeking to talk.”

“Odd that they’ve never wanted to talk before,” Panissar growled.

“Indeed,” said Lady Asfaneh. “This is unprecedented for several reasons. Dragons are famously solitary creatures, and when they do associate, they markedly prefer the company of those of their own color. Are you certain of your intelligence regarding this group’s composition?”

“As certain as I was the last time you asked,” he grunted, choosing not to react to the amused look she gave him. “Red, gold, green and blue, one of each.”

“Very well,” she said, folding her hands in front of her, still a picture of serenity. “We shall see soon enough what they want. Are the tower artillery emplacements positioned as I said?”

Panissar nodded, his own expression not lightening. “With all due respect, Lady Asfaneh, I do not see the wisdom in disarming ourselves with a threat of this magnitude approaching.”

“It is symbolic,” she said calmly. “In any case, your mag cannons would not be useful against dragons.”

“We’ve brought down a dragon before with a mag cannon.”

“I am very familiar with the accounts of that incident, General, and I’m sure you are aware that it was quite possibly the luckiest shot in all of recorded history. If this does come to violence, the strike teams will be our best hope by far.” She nodded at the six teams which had assembled in the avenue behind them. “The presence of these armed soldiers is a show of our strength; they will not begrudge us that, and in fact will likely respect it. Aiming our largest and most visibly powerful weapons at them, however, is a provocation. Keep them pointed at the sky and their operators visibly absent from the controls. We must hope that violence does not occur. No one has ever fought off four dragons.”

“You don’t need to tell me that,” he said quietly.

There came a faint buzzing noise, followed by a sharp pop, and an Army battlemage materialized beside them, saluting. “General Panissar! Newest report from Madouris on the dragons’ approach. ETA less than five minutes.”

“Thank you, soldier,” Panissar said, nodding to him. “Colonel Ontambe! Is the area cleared of civilians?”

“Evacuation just completed, sir,” the Colonel replied, saluting as he strode up to them. “The last of the town’s residents have been moved into the city. Only military and diplomatic personnel are left here.”

“Then we wait,” Lady Asfaneh whispered, eyes on the horizon to the north.

For all that it was possibly the tensest seconds of their lives, it was considerably less than five minutes. The assembled soldiers stiffened further, even Panissar drawing in a sharp breath, as the four massive forms suddenly appeared in the sky above the northern foothills, gliding around in a wide arc as if to survey the city from a distance as they passed.

“Well,” he murmured, eyes glued to the four titans, “I suppose they could be just passing by…”

This time, Lady Asfaneh didn’t even spare him a glance.

They were not just passing by. The dragons wheeled all the way around, pumping their wings as they descended to the flat ground on the outskirts of the border town. This was the widest stretch of highway in the region, close as it was to the gates of the city itself, but there was not room for even two of them to land side-by-side. They settled to the earth in a formation that nearly rivaled the fortress itself in size.

“Gods be good,” Colonel Ontambe whispered. “Four of them. One of each.”

“Report to rear command, soldier,” Panissar said quietly. “You’ll lead his Majesty’s army if I fall.”

Ontambe, he reflected as the man saluted and strode off, was too old and too seasoned a soldier to publicly lose composure like that, but considering the circumstances, he was inclined to be somewhat lenient.

It was all Panissar could do not to take a step backward as the four dragons approached them on foot. Beside him, Lady Asfaneh’s composure remained totally uncracked.

Fortunately, they shifted as they neared. They were still an impressive sight in their human-sized forms, and not merely because of the palpable aura of majesty that emanated from them. Panissar had never met a dragon before, but he’d been briefed on this effect and steeled himself against it; these creatures were powerful beings, nothing more, and did not deserve the awe he felt welling up in him. At least they were marginally less terrifying this way.

In the lead by half a step came the gold dragon, dressed in golden armor and with a two-handed sword as long as Panissar was tall slung on his back. The blue wore robes more elaborately decorated than what the ladies of the court wore to formal balls. His cobalt hair was as exquisitely coiffed, too, and his fingers glittered with jewelry. The other two were less over-the-top; the green dressed simply in wood elf fashion, with a blousy-sleeved green shirt and soft leather vest, trousers and moccasins. The red dragon looked like he belonged on the cover of one of the tawdry novels Marie pretended not to enjoy, with his improbably tight pants and ruffled shirt unlaced down to his navel, both black.

They came to a stop a few yards distant, and then to the General’s astonishment, all four bowed deeply.

“Good day,” said the gold dragon, straightening up. “We apologize for so abruptly intruding upon you, but there is a lack of standing traditions for making such an approach as this. I am Ampophrenon the Gold. With me are Zanzayed the Blue, Razzavinax the Red, and Varsinostro the Green. We most humbly request an audience with his Imperial Majesty Sharidan Julios Adolphus Tirasian.”

“Greetings, exalted ones, and welcome to Tiraas,” Lady Asfaneh replied, executing a deep and flawless curtsy. A half-second belatedly, Panissar bowed from the waist. “I am the Lady Asfaneh of House Shavayad, and it is my honor to be the Emperor’s servant in the diplomatic arts. With me is General Toman Panissar, who commands the Empire’s armies. What brings you to seek our Emperor’s ear?”

“We will discuss that with his Majesty,” Ampophrenon said, as calmly as ever.

The blue dragon cleared his throat. “Do you remember, Puff, when you asked me to warn you if you were being overbearing?”

The gold tightened his lips, half-turning to stare at his companion. “It was my assumption you would do so in private, Zanzayed.”

“Yes, and your proclivity for these assumptions is half the problem,” the blue said with a irrepressible smile. “Considering our aims here, it does these people good to see us as individuals with flaws. Such as, for example, a lack of social skills. Be nice to the Lady Shavayad, please. She can’t just bring four giant avatars of destruction into the Emperor’s presence without something to go on.”

“My companions speak truth,” Razzavinax added, smiling. Considering that he was a red dragon, he oddly seemed the most personable and at ease of the four. “Simply put, dear lady and honored general, we have come to announce the formation of our government.”

“Your…government?” Finally, Lady Asfaneh’s composure flickered for a moment.

“Indeed,” Ampophrenon said solemnly, returning the full weight of his attention to her. “No longer will we be as individuals, alone before the world. We stand together, as do your own races. We have come here, today, to be counted among the nations of the earth. The Conclave seeks now to open formal diplomatic relations with the Tiraan Empire.”

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Bonus #12, continued

Author’s note: This post is another artifact of a scheduling snafu, and is nothing but the last half of the previous chapter.  Go back a page and use the links I provided in the chapter body to reach the next real chapter!


 

The journey overland from northern Viridill to the wild territory in which the “kingdom” of Mathenon sat took nearly two months on foot. The party was prevented from acquiring mounts because Rann refused to use any feet from his own for spiritual reasons, and Shizaar approved this, as it suited her own inclination to scout ahead and to the group’s flanks as they ventured into the wilderness. Eidelaire bemoaned this delay and discomfort, but Arachne seemed to have no opinion one way or another.

Only a few days from the town, just out of sight of the mountaintop Temple complex itself, they were intercepted and pursued by about twice their number of Narisian drow, ultimately taking shelter in an abandoned shrine to some forgotten deity driven away Avei’s worship long ago. It conveniently was made of sturdy marble and had only one door. Arachne was able to put a barrier across this which held against the drow’s attacks, magical and physical, without seeming effort.

They were only besieged a few hours before being rescued by four Silver Huntresses and three times that number of soldiers from the League of Avei; the drow, ever pragmatic, fled at the first sight of a significant force rather than waste their numbers in a losing fight.

Ultimately, they spent the night at the shrine, along with their new friends, with whom Shizaar eagerly exchanged news. The troops seemed leery of Rann, but the stoic orc never gave anyone cause for hostility. From this encounter, they learned that the pass they had intended to use was blocked by a rockfall; efforts were underway to clear it, but this was likely to be the work of months.

The obstruction meant they had to go around the mountains rather than through them. They were already near the edge of the Viridill range, but this still meant a wide swing to the east and back, which added weeks to the journey. Shizaar became increasingly stingy with provisions; she hunted game for them nearly every day, and Rann foraged skillfully for edible vegetation. They never faced real hunger, nor thirst, even as they left the foothills behind and set forth into the prairie, for Arachne was able to conjure water at need. It tasted flat and stale, but hydrated the body when natural sources couldn’t be found.

North they traveled, with the forbidding black peaks of the Wyrnrange rising on their left. The mountains provided some shade as the days wore into their hottest hours, which came as a blessing, as the heat of the prairie was fierce at this time of year. Rann’s magic could soothe bodily aches, and he offered herbal salves against sunburn; Arachne could summon small clouds to provide shade, and even cooling mist at times, though she reserved this luxury for extremely hot days. Throwing arcane magic around, she said, was a sure way to attract the prairie’s denizens. The mage felt she could probably reason with plains elves, but if centaurs fell upon them there would be nothing for it but to fight.

Despite the roughness of the travel, the group made good time, none of their number holding them back. Shizaar and Rann, of course, were hardy and well accustomed to the outdoors; Eidelaire, despite his foppish appearance and mannerisms, walked without complaint or apparent discomfort, even entertaining his companions with songs and stories as they went. Arachne described herself as a “city girl,” but even so had no more trouble with the pace and the elements than any of them. She did complain, but only periodically, and in the good-natured manner of someone who just liked the sound of her own voice.

For the most part they did manage to avoid conflict. Three times bands of plains elves appeared in the distance; on each occasion, Arachne placed herself between them and the party, and the groups always retreated back into the prairie after several hours, and without coming close enough to be clearly seen. Arachne insisted they were within the range of elvish eyes, though, which was the point. Avoiding parties of centaurs was a more serious matter, and whenever Rann’s invisible (except to him) spirit companions warned of their approach, the group cut westward toward the mountains.

Though this worked well enough most of the time, they were twice pursued. Both times, Arachne and Rann’s magics proved sufficient to drive the small bands away before they came in range of Shizaar’s bow. An entire herd veered toward them midway through their journey, however, forcing them to retreat right into the foothills, where the centaurs would not follow, but which held their own dangers.

The Wyrnrange was so named because it was known to be dragon territory; only gnomes passed through the mountains with impunity, and only because they treated dragons politely and had been taught draconic etiquette which they did not share with outsiders. There were rumored groups of dragonsworn deep in the mountains, of entire villages devoted to the service of one wyrm or another, though of course the party never progressed far enough in to find any such.

All in all, the journey was an adventure, though a minor one by the standards of all four of them; Eidelaire didn’t consider any of their encounters worth composing a song about. It served them well, however. Despite the fortunate lack of reasons to fight, they did learn to get along and anticipate one another’s movements to an extent, and were not a group of complete strangers when their destination hove into view.

Once they veered back onto the plains, it was only another six days of walking before the dark battlements of Zanzayed’s arena appeared on the northern horizon. Now began the true adventure.


It was a lonely scar upon the prairie. Made of the dark volcanic stone of the Wyrnrange, the arena was distant enough from even the foothills that hauling its pieces out here had to have been a significant effort—though not so much as that represented by the massive timbers which also went into its construction. They were clearly of Wyrnrange pine, but those grew even deeper into the mountains. Harvesting resources from land patrolled by dragons was an ominous prospect indeed. The arena was roughly made, sturdy but clearly not intended to be a great edifice. It might well last the test of ages, though, simply due to its solid construction. Its sheer size would have represented years of work by mortal hands, or perhaps weeks of work by a combination of such hands and the magics of a blue dragon.

Or perhaps mortals had not been involved at all.

It had entrances on three sides, apparently—each cardinal direction except west. The main gate on the east side, through which they passed, opened onto a dirt road which cut through an improvised huddle of inns, shops and lean-to dwellings, with tents scattered around their periphery. Three years on, some few of the buildings were starting to take on a little permanence, though none looked like they would survive a significant storm. There was another town within view to the northeast, and another small road leading to it. The arena’s little community lay along a path to the old dwarven trade road which ran nearby, from which most of its commerce flowed.

Deciding not to do anything so overtly suspicious as circle around the walls studying them, the group from Viridill had bought their tickets—four coppers apiece, to Rann’s utter disgust—and made their way in. They had to pause almost immediately in the welcome shadow of a long tunneled achway while Eidelaire attempted to shmooze the gate guards for information.

“I want to punch that guy,” Rann growled, glaring at the roughly-armored guard who had taken their money.

“We all want to punch the guy,” Arachne said soothingly, patting his shoulder. “Patience.”

“Because he is part of an utterly villainous scheme, or because the tickets are overpriced?” Shizaar asked dryly.

Rann grunted. “Second one. People caught up in villainous schemes are usually just trying to survive. Four coppers, though? Robbery.”

“Not the friendliest staff I’ve ever had the pleasure of interacting with,” Eidelaire commented, swaggering back over to them. “That fellow gets no tip, just in case anyone was tempted.”

“Damn,” Arachne said, deadpan. “Now I have to recalculate my whole budget.”

“You weren’t able to learn anything useful?” Shizaar asked.

“Oh, I very much doubt he knew anything useful,” the bard replied with an eloquent shrug. “I was looking for an in, but this isn’t a friendly, talkative sort of guard. He’s more the ‘not my bloody job’ kind of guard. To play that angle I’m going to have to hunt down somebody in some degree of charge. Ah, well! Shall we?”

Almost everyone they passed gave them curious looks; they were an interesting-looking party. Orcs were a rare sight in this region, as were wood elves, and Eidelaire’s lute and flute case drew eager smiles. Everyone was happy to see a bard, even if their entertainment was already being provided. At least they were focused enough on the games that nobody stopped him to ask for a song. Shizaar drew more than her share of suspicion, as was only to be expected, considering how she kept her hood drawn well over her face. It wasn’t really optional, though. Considering what was going on in this arena, any sign of a Silver Huntress would immediately be taken as a threat.

They climbed a flight of broad stairs along with the other spectators ascending, mostly an easily-distinguishable mix of beaten-down-looking farm folk from nearby and better-dressed traveling merchants and members of their retinues. The steps led to the actual seats of the arena—nothing fancy, of course, just rising rings with low benches. They had a roof, however, shading the spectators and leaving only the arena floor to be beaten upon by the prairie sun. People milled about, sitting, talking, watching the show, some lurking in dark corners at the rear of the stands, clearly up to no good.

To avoid the appearance of being up to equally no good—for those shady characters were getting scrutiny both from fellow customers and the guards that occasionally passed through—the party took seats at the very front, after traveling far enough to find a spot where they had no neighbors within earshot. There, they set to studying their environs.

Banners hung from the pillars holding up the roof, decorating the arena; they were plain blue, with no device. Two especially long ones flanked the box which perched on the western side of the stands, walled off from the common seating areas and furnished much more extravagantly, to judge by the scraps of curtain and carpeting visible. It had its own blue silk awning, positioned to shade the box and also protect it from view; its occupants sat well back from the edge, deep in the shadows. Arachne peered at this through narrowed eyes for a while, her elven vision apparently enough to penetrate the gloom, though the others didn’t press her for details at that time.

Interestingly, the rare guards were all female, and wore leather armor that, while clearly ceremonial (it was designed more to display than to protect) was well-fitted to each of them. They carried spears and short swords which were starkly functional, and though they strutted a bit, each of the women were muscular and held those weapons in a way that suggested they were acquainted with their use.

“Apparently there’s a career to be had here even if you don’t win,” Eidelaire murmured.

“That’s not what my intelligence suggested,” Shizaar replied.

“Hm.”

Below, there were several things going on, seemingly without rhyme or reason. Three separate pairs dueled on the arena floor; around its periphery was set up an obstacle course, with women running it at various stages. Looking from above, it wasn’t obvious where the thing began or ended, and nobody seemed to be supervising.

As they watched, a girl who couldn’t have been out of her teens was knocked backward by her opponent, who appeared little older but had a full head of height on her. The taller woman’s spear made good use of that asset, particularly against her sword-wielding foe.

The younger woman tried to rise and got a jab in the chest with the butt of the spear for her trouble. She rolled nimbly to the side, evading another such jab, but as she finally bounded to her feet was immediately sent crashing down again, her legs swept out from under her by the long haft of the weapon.

The spear-carrier stomped hard on her foe’s hand, forcing her to drop the blade and eliciting a shriek of pain, audible even over the mix of groans and cheers from the half-filled stands. Grinning savagely, the taller woman raised her weapon overhead, point aimed downward.

“Alethia,” a voice rang out, its tone mild but its volume clearly amplified by magic, “you know my rules. Control yourself.”

The spear-wielder flinched, then paused, halting her attack, and said something to her foe which was lost in the noise of the crowd. She apparently didn’t like whatever response she got, for she spun the spear to reverse it and slammed the butt down on the swordswoman’s midsection.

The younger girl curled up on herself, retching and gasping, and the victor stepped back, raising her weapon overhead in both hands and pumping it up and down, grinning up at the roar of approbation from the crowd. She finally turned and planted it point-down in the dirt, bowing deeply toward the box, from which came no audible response.

“Now that is interesting,” Eidelaire said, pointing; the fallen swordswoman was being helped up by another woman in a pale dress. Though all the contenders they could see, either dueling or running the obstacle course, were human, the one now helping the defeated combatant limp from the arena was an elf. “For several reasons.”

“She’s local,” Arachne said. “Or relatively so. A plains elf, anyway.”

“How can you tell?” Rann asked curiously. “Tribal markings?”

“It’s the shape of the ears, old fellow,” Eidelaire said with a wink. “Wood elves have ears that stick straight up, like our companion’s, here. Plains elves have horizontal ones, like that. Out to the sides. More immediately, I noted that they don’t seem to be big on killing, here.”

“At least not in these games,” Shizaar murmured. “They seem rather…preliminary. Disorganized at least.”

Arachne flagged down a vendor who had been shouting about hot wine, bread and sausage.

“The fights aren’t to the death?” she asked him casually as she handed over coins and accepted snacks for the group.

The man brayed a laugh, revealing a mouth only half-full of teeth. “Haw! Waste of good womanflesh, that. The master, he ain’t the wasteful type, see? Nah, the girls get their exercise, and them as gets too bloodthirsty, they gets disqualified, see? The Big Z’s after a dragonmother—wants a good fighter, not a crazy bitch. ‘Ere, now, you plannin’ on steppin’ into the ring?” He eyed her up and down, which made Shizaar stiffen, but his look was more curious than lustful. “Dunno much ’bout elves, beggn’ yer pardon. You don’t look too scrappy, but mebbe that’s just how your kind is.”

“Up to a point, yes,” she said dryly. “What about the elf who helped that gladiator off?”

“Aye, the menders is all elves. A plains tribe what helps out the Master. You lot enjoy that, now!”

He moved off, hawking his wares again.

“This is terrible,” said Rann, who had already eaten half his share.

“Oh, I’m sure you’ve had worse,” Eidelaire said with a grin.

“Hn,” the orc grunted, nodding. “It’s better than I was expecting. Better than most arena food. Still crap.”

“It seems your intelligence was in error, then,” Arachne commented to Shizaar, who was holding a piece of bread-wrapped sausage without making any move with it toward her face.

“Indeed. This is why we do recon before attacking anyone.”

“We’ve learned some interesting things already,” Eidelaire commented, watching another injured gladiator being removed by elves. This one was fully unconscious, and had to be carried off by two of them, one male, one female. “For the time being, I suggest was park it here, get a feel for how the games proceed. Perhaps we’ll hear some more from our scaly friend, too.”

“Mm,” Arachne murmured. “For now, sure. Later, though… Are we staying in the town?”

“In the village,” Shizaar said. “I don’t trust the inn nearby. We can lay more plans there, but at the moment, our talents might be better used splitting up.”

“Quite so,” Eidelaire commented, discreetly nibbling around the gristle in his sausage. “I’ll get myself into circulation anon. Everyone talks to a bard.”

“And I’ll slip below and have a word with the staff,” Arachne said more grimly. “I would very much like to know what the hell elves think they’re doing participating in this nonsense.”

“Rann and I had probably better remain up here,” Shizaar said, getting a grunt of agreement from the orc. “There’s little acceptable excuse for us to be poking around below, and someone should stay and try to learn the rhythms of these…games. That being the case, though, I think you two can get started as soon as possible.”

“In a bit,” Arachne said distractedly, then leaned forward over the rail, shouting. “Oh, come on, hit her! You’re not even trying!”

Shizaar sighed.


The village was easily visible from the arena, but distance on the prairie was deceptive. It was a good hour’s walk to reach it, and they didn’t set out until near dusk when their various investigations were complete. It was dark by the time they arrived, and then they had to find an inn with space available. Fortunately the little town had multiple inns, due to its proximity to the trade route; unfortunately, due to the arena and the presence of several merchant caravans, there was not much space to be had. Eventually they had to settle for a single room, at a price that made Rann grind his teeth.

Once there, though, they saved money by eating the remains of their provisions around the room’s little fire and talking in privacy, Arachne having warded the walls against eavesdroppers.

“It’s pragmatism, not any particular desire to participate,” the mage was saying. “At least according to the two I spoke to, and I see no reason to argue with them. The dozen or so elves here feel they can do some good by making themselves useful, mostly as healers; their tribe is staying out of sight of the caravan route, but they’re nearby. Close enough to be fetched by runner within a few days. They aren’t about to go toe-to-toe with the dragon, but… Both of them hinted broadly that if somebody turned up with a plan and a worthwhile chance of bringing Zanzayed down, they’d be inclined to be helpful.”

“Allies, then,” Rann grunted.

“Possibly,” Arachne said, frowning. “There are a lot of uncertainties, there. Depends on what they’d consider a worthwhile chance…and even so, what they’d be willing to do. Elves are cautious as a rule; any plan that involves attacking him outright isn’t likely to impress them. Let me emphasize that I got hints, not promises.”

“This will not be done in a day,” Shizaar mused. “I am reassured that women are not being slain over this frivolity. We have time, at least, to lay plans.”

“Doesn’t that change the entire character of the matter, though?” Eidelaire asked. “Don’t hit me, Shizaar, but… If he’s not killing women, is this really something that needs to be stopped?”

“It’s a lot less urgent,” Arachne said before the Huntress could reply, perhaps luckily for Eidelaire. “Yes, he’s contributing to the economy and providing entertainment…”

“From what I learned,” the bard said, “the gifts victorious girls bring back to their own families are substantial. Perhaps trivial to a dragon with a solid hoard to his name, but beyond the dreams of peasant folk like these. Only those who make the semifinals and above win anything, but still, that’s a significant boost for each family affected and a lesser one for everybody with whom they do business. I ask again, if he’s not killing the girls, where’s the harm?”

“I wasn’t finished,” Arachne said sharply. “The harm is that he’s training all these people to be dependent on his handouts, to pursue this foolishness instead of their own livelihoods, to judge the intrinsic value of their sisters and daughters by their youth and physical beauty. These are the first steps toward completely overthrowing a society. In settled places, there will be temples, governments and cultural institutions to counteract the influence of people like Zanzayed; out here, he’s going to become some kind of savage warlord this way. Bad enough if that’s his intention; worse if means to just fly off when he has what he wants and leave everybody to welter in the barbarism he’s fostered. So, yes, it’s less urgent. Maybe not a matter that was worth rushing across the countryside to put an immediate stop to. Still something that deserves to be addressed, however. I might not have agreed to come if I’d known this was all we’d find, but we’re here, and I think this is still worth doing.”

“Zanzayed seems the kind of asshole who needs to be stopped,” Rann said. “But perhaps not the kind who needs to die.”

“Well said,” Arachne replied with a grin.

“Have you ever studied Avenist theology?” Shizaar asked the mage. “You explain some of its points very clearly.”

“That’s a discussion for another time,” Arachne said evasively. “More urgently, can we go back to the very first suggestion I made, back in Viridill? Zanzayed isn’t depraved enough to be murdering women for his amusement; perhaps he can still be talked down from this idiocy.”

“It’s worth considering,” Shizaar allowed.

“Tael nae d’Wyrn,” Eidelaire quoted, grinning.

“Stop saying that,” Arachne snapped.

“Anyway,” he went on, “if we’re agreed this doesn’t need to be resolved in any crashing hurry, I’ll have time to do some more poking around. I might even be able to get an audience with His Blueness himself!” He winked. “Like I keep telling you guys, everybody loves a bard.”

“Everybody who hasn’t traveled with one,” Rann muttered.

“That being decided,” Shizaar said, standing, “I am going to return to the arena.”

“What?” Arachne frowned. “Now?”

“It is dark, and will be relatively empty,” the Huntress said, already moving toward the window. She pushed open its shutters, peering out. “I am more than capable of moving stealthily, at need, and this is a good opportunity to familiarize myself with the layout. I might learn something useful, besides.”

“There’s stealth, and then there’s stealth,” Arachne warned. “The elves don’t sleep there, but they keep odd hours. I’m no expert on the magic of plains elves; I won’t promise they can’t detect you creeping around.”

“They may also be willing to aid us, you said,” Shizaar replied calmly. “I will be careful, Arachne. I consider this a risk worth taking; it is not my intention to confront anyone. Meet me in the stands tomorrow.”

With that curt farewell, she vanished over the sill. There wasn’t even a sound of her hitting the ground below.

Eidelaire sighed, getting up to pull the window shut. “Well, I guess she’s getting out of paying the entrance fee tomorrow. If we’re going to be around long, we should see if there are season passes available.”


There were a variety of games being played at any given time. There were the straightforward gladiatorial bouts, of course, and even those came in different types. Duels were crowd-pleasers, especially when taking place between two popular gladiators, but there were also wider melees with multiple combatants, and engagements of small teams.

In addition to the hand-to-hand combat, there were timed races, both of foot speed and through the obstacle course. Athletic contests of various kinds also occurred; archery and javelin-throwing, unsurprisingly, were popular, but there were also displays of weight lifting, high-jumping and various other feats which amounted to little more than party tricks.

The arena never allowed spectators to forget its true purpose, however. While shows of martial prowess predominated, they never went long without pausing for displays of feminine beauty. Contestants danced to the sound of a small group of musicians, posed in various states of undress, and wrestled. Nude. In mud.

“It’s degrading and exploitative, to be sure,” Arachne mused, rubbing her chin as she stared thoughtfully down at two lithe, barely-clothed young women having what could only be described as a dance-off. They alternated playing to the crowd with showing very aggressive body language at each other. She’d seen a few exotic dancers in her time, but rarely any so lean and muscular. “Still… It almost seems churlish to complain about that when women elsewhere are being forced into prostitution and all manner of subjugation.”

“Hn.”

“However all this ends, Zanzayed is going to leave behind more than a handful of young women who are less likely than most to be dragged into a corner by some thug.”

“Hm.”

“The real problem here is economics. None of the prizes he’s paying out compare to what he rakes in. Especially when the bookies work for him, which I’ll bet my ears they all do. Admission fees alone are exorbitant, and what the shitty food costs… The brilliance of it is he’s got a total monopoly on entertainment in the whole area. The locals have nothing to do but farm and contemplate their grim futures, and the caravaners and adventurers love having something to stop and watch in the middle of this wilderness.”

“Nhn.”

“If half of what Eidelaire’s heard this morning is true, Zanzayed’s gradually drawing in every musician and artist in the kingdom, not to mention monopolizing the blacksmiths, leatherworkers, stonemasons, healers… He’s suborning the entire economy bit by bit, and Mathen can’t do a damn thing about it. I wonder if Blue boy is doing this on purpose, or just doesn’t care, as long as it gets him what he wants.”

“Mm.”

“It’s believable he’s having trouble conceiving. Dragons don’t breed easily, and most of the ways they have around it are the province of the greens. Arcane magic doesn’t lend itself readily to biological effects.”

“Mhm.”

“Either way…he’s going to leave the economy of this whole region in tatters when he leaves. If he leaves. Do you suppose that’s worse than him actually overthrowing the kingdom? Dragon-led nations have existed, but they tend to attract all manner of violence from their neighbors.”

“Hmp.”

“I wonder… If we chase him off, we’ll be doing a lot of that damage ourselves. Makes you stop and consider, doesn’t it?”

“Hn.”

She glanced up at him and spoke more gently.

“She’ll be all right, Rann.”

The orc’s broad shoulders swelled in a huge sigh. “She should have met us long since.”

“She said ‘tomorrow.’ It’s still tomorrow.”

“It’s past noon!”

“Shizaar can handle herself as well as any of us,” the elf said, patting his shoulder.

“This place is simply not big enough for an experienced scout to take so long to investigate it,” he growled. “And now, and for half the day, it has been active. Something has gone wrong. What do your ears tell you?”

“A great deal of irrelevant minutia,” she said, removing her gaze from the dancers below to scan the stands. “The thousand tiny dramas that occur whenever you get this many people under one roof. There’s a dead spot, though, over there.” She nodded across the way at Zanzayed’s shaded box. “Silence from within, and I can feel the magic laid over it.”

“That’s where she is,” Rann growled, starting to rise. “She’s being held—”

“Stop!” Arachne snapped, yanking him back down by the shoulder. She hadn’t a fraction of his muscle; he clearly sat because he chose to, but at least he did. “There’s no reason to think Zanzayed is planning to entrap us. A sonic dead zone is a very basic privacy measure when he’s clearly taking women to bed and has a staff consisting partly of elves. Besides, not hearing Shizaar doesn’t particularly worry me, either; I can’t hear her half the time when she goes off scouting. I’ve noticed that with other Silver Huntresses. Some gift of Avei. It’s not time to panic yet, Rann.”

“Then when will it be time?” he muttered. Abruptly, the orc stiffened. “Something is about to happen.”

“Something?” She looked down at the arena floor again, then around at the stands. “What?”

“The rhythm. Can you not see it? These two days there have been general entertainments, usually multiple events at once. When they all lead toward a conclusion, there is always a change of venue. See?”

Indeed, the dancers had finished their performance, to a chorus of hoots and whistles from the audience. There were also a few runners staggering to a halt at the end of their track, looking slightly winded and more than slightly annoyed; their event had clearly not been the center of attention while the dance was going on. A pair of duelists had just finished up and one was being carried out, the winner looking as cheated as the racers; a last duel was still in session, but obviously coming to an end, one woman limping and being chased in futile circles by a more agile opponent.

“Eidelaire’s coming back this way,” Arachne murmured, cocking her head to listen. The bard was not yet in view.

Rann nodded. “He saw what I saw. Bards are sensitive to these rhythms.”

“Rhythms in general, I should think.”

The reaction from the crowd stole the show from the dancers when the wounded, retreating gladiator suddenly sprung forward from her “injured” leg, slamming the pommel of her sword into her opponent’s throat and decisively wiping the victorious smirk from her face. The other woman went down, gagging and clutching at her neck; the victor brandished her blade, grinning despite being unable to stand up properly.

“Nothing?” Eidelaire asked under the cover of wild cheering as he rejoined them.

“Nothing pertinent to us,” Arachne replied. “Did you see that? I’m thinking of financing one of these arenas myself. That was awesome.”

“I’ll refrain from telling Shizaar you said that,” he promised solemnly.

“If we ever see her again,” Rann growled.

“It’s about at the point where I think we can start worrying,” Arachne said grudgingly. “I have trouble imagining what could keep her from reporting back to us by now.”

“I think we passed that point a few hours ago,” the bard replied, frowning. “The question becomes, what to do about it? Whatever she ran afoul of was either the dragon himself or one of his agents. Something that we should hesitate to challenge.”

“It would be wise to hesitate,” Rann said. “That doesn’t mean we should.”

The roar of the crowd had diminished notably, but at its sudden swell, all three of them turned to see what the source was.

Zanzayed the Blue had finally made his appearance.

He had stepped up to the small balcony on the front of his shaded box, and now stood with his arms spread, smirking smugly as he accepted the adulation of the crowd. There was enough adulation that he didn’t look at all foolish in the process; clearly he was a popular figure here. He could have passed for a half-elf, if not for his jewel-like eyes and cobalt hair. He was also extremely effeminate, and not merely because of his delicate features. His hair was waist-length and brushed to a glossy sheen, held back with extravagantly jeweled combs; he wore a rich blue silk robe so thoroughly embroidered with golden thread that the overall effect was nearly green when one squinted.

“Are we all enjoying the show?” the dragon asked, his voice a calm and conversational tone which nonetheless boomed throughout the arena.

The crowd roared even more vigorously.

“I think,” Eidelaire noted, “if we end up having to fight this guy, we won’t be able to count on much local support.”

“Let’s try not to fight the dragon,” Arachne said. “If he won’t see reason, we’ll work out how to assassinate him.”

Rann grunted.

“I’m glad to see so many faces here today,” the dragon said, grinning. “Because I have a special treat for you all!”

“I have a terrible feeling,” Rann muttered as the crowd brayed around them again, “that I know what’s about to happen.”

Four women had appeared from floor-level doorways next to Zanzayed’s box and paced toward the middle of the arena, where they took up positions roughly encircling its center.

“You know the front-runners in the tournament, I’m sure,” the dragon said, “but I think these ladies have more than earned an introduction! From the sunny shores of the far West, she has come in search of…”

“He’s actually quite the showman,” Eidelaire commented as the dragon continued, pausing as the first gladiatrix’s introduction concluded to a roar of approbation from the spectators. “You don’t often see that in these ancient, powerful immortal types. They rarely have a need to impress anyone.”

“How ancient is he?” Rann asked, scowling. “He behaves like a self-important youth. From the dress on down.”

“Something happening in the middle, there,” Arachne said as the introductions continued. “He’s setting up a spell right between the four of them…”

“A spell?” Ran frowned. “What kind?”

“Mm… Oh, I see, it’s actually a few woven together. Basic teleportation spell; he’s about to deposit something in the center. You don’t usually see that set up in advance, but he’s woven some visual effects into it. You’re right, Eid, he’s got a flair for the dramatic.”

“Yep,” the bard said, his attention below. “And it looks like we’re about to see the main event.”

“…any of them stand up to what I’m about to show you?” Zanzayed was crowing, having whipped the crowd into a veritable frenzy. “We’ll just have to see, won’t we? For the arena has a new contender, an agent of far-away enemies sent to sabotage your fun, my good people, and now destined to be part of it: A real, live, in the flesh Silver Huntress!”

Arachne and Eidelaire grabbed Rann by both shoulders, barely preventing him from lunging to his feet and vaulting over the rail into the arena itself.

Sparks and jets of blue flame flew; smoke billowed forth, then formed into elaborate patterns as it drifted upward and faded. When the flash and flare had subsided, standing in the center of the arena was Shizaar, her hood gone, revealing her tattooed face to the crowd.

She appeared unhappy, but unhurt. Her wrists were chained together behind her back and she’d been dressed in a pale leather outfit that was clearly of plains elf design, though someone had embroidered it with flashy golden eagle icons, clearly demonstrating her affiliation.

The crowd booed obediently; the four gladiators held their weapons at the ready, glaring at the Huntress. Shizaar turned slowly, ignoring the crowd, and gave each of them a short, calculating look before turning her gaze on Zanzayed.

“How ironic are the twists of fate,” the dragon said, grinning. “Who knows, my dear Huntress, you may find yourself winning my little tourney. I can’t help thinking you would be a splendid mother.”

“You are beyond contemptible,” Shizaar snapped, her voice echoing clearly. The onlookers jeered.

“Okay, new plan,” Arachne said, releasing Rann. “Subtle is now off the table; we’re not leaving her down there.”

“She can probably take those four—”

“That is utterly irrelevant, Eidelaire,” the mage snapped. “He is not going to do this to one of our companions. I will hold the asshole’s attention. You two get everyone out of the arena.”

“What?” Rann exclaimed. “Why? How?”

“Because any means I have at my disposal of holding his attention are going to result in widespread damage,” she said grimly. “Let’s not have any slain bystanders on our consciences if we can avoid it.” Below, Zanzayed was still chattering at Shizaar, working the crowd again.

“That leaves how,” Eidelaire remarked.

“You’re a shaman with spirit companions and a freaking bard. If you can’t move a bunch of frenzied, half-drunk idiots, I have no hope for the world.”

With that and no more ado, Arachne leaped over the rail, landing nimbly on the packed dirt below.

The tone of the crowd changed, confused murmurs rising, as the elf strode toward the gathering in the center. Zanzayed broke off mid-exhortation, turning his attention on her.

“What’s all this? I’m sorry, darling, but there is a procedure if you want to compete. Speak to the guards for an escort to the barracks. This is a scheduled event.”

“Schedule’s changed,” Arachne announced, her voice echoing throughout the arena the same way his was. Zanzayed lifted his eyebrows at that. “I have had enough of this nonsense. The Huntress is with me; you will release her immediately.”

“And why on earth should I?” he asked mildly. “I frankly resent her imposition here. Do I send agents out to meddle with Avei’s love life? Then again,” he added with a smirk, “perhaps if she had one we’d have no need for this conversation.”

The laughter from the stands only deepened Shizaar’s scowl.

“I was just wondering,” Arachne snapped, “whether the point of your operation here is to throw the economy of the whole region into shambles, or if that’s simply a side effect you don’t care about. What happens to this place when you get bored or get what you came for and leave? What happens to all these people? These women?”

The gladiators had shifted their focus to her, now, seeming not at all impressed by her concern over their futures.

“A shambles, is it,” Zanzayed said, grinning openly. “Tell me, my friends, do you feel you’re in shambles?”

A swelling tide of cheers rose up all around them—and was suddenly silenced.

Arachne held one finger in the air, staring at the dragon, who appeared startled. “I am speaking to you, y’little hooligan. All of you, shut up for a minute.”

She lowered her hand and the sound from the stands abruptly returned, though now it consisted mostly of confused, frightened whispering.

“Well, well, well,” Zanzayed purred, grinning down at her. “I do believe this is an even better prospect than the Huntress. A mage, and an elf at that! One doesn’t often see the combination. How odd that I’ve not heard of you before, my dear! Tell me, do you have a name?”

“You might know me as Arachne,” she said, folding her arms.

“Oh?” He raised his eyebrows. “Oh! Arachne! Actually, I have heard of you!”

“Damn right you have,” she said smugly.

“Yes!” Zanzayed cried, leaning forward over the balcony and grinning down at her. “You’re that screwloose elf who tried to sacrifice a sacred bear on an altar to Shaath and unleashed a plague on half the Stalrange!”

Her smirk vanished. “Unleash—half—it was one valley! There was hardly anyone there, and that is not the point!” Arachne pointed at Shizaar. “I’m taking my friend and leaving.”

“I think you’ll find that a difficult—huh,” he added as Shizaar vanished in a faint blue crackle of light. “Well, that’s annoying. Ladies, why is nobody stabbing this wench?”

The gladiators managed barely a step forward before all four of them went flying bodily in different directions, skidding across the ground to roll up against the walls.

“I do say that seemed rather unsporting,” Zanzayed commented. The booing crowd clearly agreed.

“This is ridiculous,” Rann muttered. “I can unleash fear into the spectators, but not without something to work with. Emotions don’t just happen.”

“Wait,” said Eidelaire. “If I know our girl, they’ll have cause to fear in just a moment.”

“Unsporting?” Arachne said, sneering. “That is not a word I expected to hear from a guy in a fruity dress who needs to build an edifice and pit the available female population against each other to have a chance of getting laid.”

The silence was astonishing. For all the people there and all their love of good drama, it seemed everyone present was keenly aware they had just seen a dragon viciously insulted to his face.

Everyone except the guy in the back who burst into gales of tenor laughter.

“Jealous, are we?” Zanzayed asked with a thin smile.

Arachne threw back her head and cackled. “Oh, come on now. Really? Seriously? ‘Jealous?’ That’s like admitting you have no rebuttal. In fact, you could probably save more face if you’d just say that! Really, who the hell are you, anyway? Zanzayed the Blue? I’ve never heard of you, and I’ve been around. Is this your first time out of the den? Are you accustomed to daddy bringing you women, already beaten compliant?”

The sounds from the stands now were shuffling and footsteps as people began discreetly moving toward the exits.

“I believe we’re irrelevant here,” Rann commented.

“Hang on,” said Eidelaire. “Can your spirits induce calm? We may need to forestall a stampede in just a minute…”

“I’ll tell you what, Arachne,” Zanzayed said with a bite in his tone. “I prefer my partners relatively enthusiastic, but if you are hellbent on scaring away all the other prospects, I guess you’ll do. Unless you would like to take yourself out of my arena, now that you have extracted your friend?”

“Well, I’ve come all this way,” she said, grinning openly and planting her fists on her hips. “Seems like it’d be a waste of the trip to slink off without kicking your scaly ass first.”

“What is she doing?” Rann whispered in horror.

“Being a distraction, and clearing the place out.” Eidelaire said. “Quite effectively, too. Really, be ready with some calming. Somebody’s gonna get trampled otherwise. I really hope Shizaar had the sense to keep going, wherever she ended up…”

The exodus from the stands was accelerating, and picked up speed further when Zanzayed stepped onto the rail of his balcony and from there jumped out.

He shifted in midair, forcing Arachne to step rapidly backward to avoid being crushed. In his full form, an enormous display of cobalt-scaled muscle and spiny wings, he filled almost half the arena floor; when he stretched up to his full height and spread his wings, the tips brushed the roof on both sides.

“I beg your pardon,” the dragon rumbled, his voice recognizably the same but now with a deep resonance that seemed to make the floor vibrate, “but you will…what, exactly?”

“You see this hand?” Arachne said, holding up her right one, palm forward.

Zanzayed bent down, bringing his nose to within a few feet of her, and grinned, displaying a terrifying arsenal of teeth. “Just barely.”

Arachne made a swatting motion, and a wagon-sized hand of blue light appeared in midair and struck him on the side of the face. The dragon squawked as his neck was whipped around, and stumbled sideways, one wing flailing awkwardly into a section of the stands that had already been cleared.

“That wasn’t the one you should’ve been looking at,” Arachne said smugly.

“Now is a good time,” Eidelaire began.

“Yes, yes,” Rann snapped. “I have been asking the spirits. This crowd is trying to panic and I cannot hold it back for long. Luckily they will be gone from the arena soon. And we should be, too!”

“But…can’t we help her?”

The orc stood, grabbing the bard by the arm and beginning to march him toward the stairs, following the last of the now-screaming onlookers. “She knows what she is doing. Hopefully.”

Zanzayed straightened up, his lips drawing back to display even more of his fangs, and opened his mouth wide, inhaling deeply as he glared down at Arachne. Flames and sparks flickered at the edges of his jaws.

Then he began choking and gagging as a huge clump of dirt struck him full in the throat.

“My, my,” Arachne said, amused. “You really are new at this, aren’t—”

She broke off, quickly throwing a sphere of blue light up around herself as the dragon’s cough turned into a gout of fire that left her standing in a patch of molten glass.

That was the last Eidelaire saw before Rann dragged him into the stairwell.


The evacuation was anything but orderly. Fortunately, more than the bard and the shaman were interested in keeping things from degenerating into chaos. The arena’s own guards, both the armored women and the slouching local men who manned the gates, had apparently been the first to flee, but there were also soldiers attached to various merchant trains present, and their efforts to keep their employers safe at least directed the crowd, if they did nothing to slow it.

People fled first into the inns and shops in the little village outside the arena, but even that began to clear out at the cacophony of roars, explosions and unidentifiable noise and flashes of light that started to emerge from within. By the time the story of what was going on in the arena had spread, luckily, most of those who seemed inclined to flee the area were already on the road, clearing room for the little pseudo-village to empty itself.

Most folks in local attire streamed either toward the little town in the near distance, or on the road north, toward Mathenhold. Merchant trains were getting underway as soon as oxen could be yoked, and elves discreetly slipped out into the tallgrass of the prairie. Clearing most of the bystanders from an area that size took well over an hour.

Fortunately, Shizaar found them outside, and the three were able to set themselves up about halfway to the village while Rann made a more involved communication with his spirits, sending them out to hurry the crowds along. With space to work and concentrate, he managed to keep relative calm among the evacuees, even while goading them to get away.

Eventually, though, what could be done had bee done, and there was nothing else for it but to retreat to the town, watch the arena, and wait.

The show never stopped.

Most of the distant noise was meaningless to them, but every few minutes would come something more identifiable. Multiple times lightning slashed down out of the clear sky into the arena floor. Gouts of unmistakable dragonfire flared up regularly, along with flashes of light the distinctive blue of arcane magic. The whole time, as the hour stretched out toward two, the arena steadily disintegrated, till parts of its walls were lying around it in chunks and more of the roof and timbers had burned away than still remained. Smoke drifted up steadily, marring the clear prairie sky and dimming the intermittent displays of energy from within.

At one point, a streak of fire and black smoke roared down from the sky, slamming into the side of the arena and half-collapsing its north wall.

Still, the conflict continued. Those in the village who deemed this far enough to be safe stood around with the party from Viridill, watching in silence. Everyone else had already fled. The only comfort the three companions could hold to was that as long as the action was still going on, Arachne was still alive and kicking.

Eventually, though, it wound down. Not with a bang, but fading gradually as if both combatants were simply growing tired.

“Can’t believe she said fighting dragons was a bad idea,” Rann muttered. “How many times did she say that?”

“What I want to know is why we kept running away from centaurs and elves if she could do this,” Eidelaire replied.

Shizaar just shook her head.

When the silence descended, they didn’t trust it at first, taking it for just another lull in the action. It stretched out, though, growing heavy and ominous. Around them, villagers and refugees began retreating into their homes and inns, leaving only the three and a few especially curious souls staring across the plain at the smoking, half-broken arena.

The sun had descended behind the mountains, bringing the early dusk that always fell on this region and leaving the remaining sky stained red when movement finally occurred again. In the dimness, an enormous shape rose up from the smoke, only growing distinct as it glided out from the dark haze.

The dragon was heading straight for them.

People screamed, fleeing into buildings; others fled out of buildings as the shouts spread, pelting off up the road northward.

The companions held their ground, Rann clutching his totems, Shizaar brandishing the two sabers she had somehow acquired, her own weapons having been confiscated during her capture.

Even in the darkness, the blue tint of his scales was clear. Zanzayed settled to the ground relatively gently, some ten yards distant, his azure eyes glowing in the twilight.

He was a mess. His scales were charred, one of his wing sails was torn, and his left eye seemed swollen partially shut.

And amazingly, Arachne sat perched on his neck, just before the shoulders.

The dragon knelt, then lowered himself fully to the ground, allowing her to slide down. She, too, was in visibly bad shape, her dress scorched and ripped away above the knee, showing ugly burns on her lower legs. Her hair was much shorter and badly singed; she had an impressive black eye, and her right arm was swathed in a makeshift sling.

For a moment, the dragon and elf glanced at each other, then he straightened up and coughed, emitting a puff of ill-smelling smoke.

“We’ve been having a conversation,” Zanzayed said.

“We saw it,” Shizaar replied, not lowering her weapons.

He shuffled his front feet, looking almost abashed. “Yes, well… It occurs to me that I’ve been a trifle… Inconsiderate.”

“Holy shit,” Eidelaire whispered. “You can tell the Wyrm.”

“Well,” said Arachne, pacing toward them and looking equally parts exhausted and self-satisfied. “I don’t know if you can.”

6 – 34

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The city of Kiyosan, glittering jewel of Sifan, rose from the calm waters of the bay in whose center it was set. The rounded mountain island was roughly shaped like the narrow end of an egg, long since carved into steps and terraces and its entire surface covered by the city. Over time, ambitious building projects and strict zoning regulations had transformed the once-mismatched hodgepodge of structures to a beautiful, perfectly symmetrical edifice, surmounted by the towering Opal Palace, which soared from the very peak of the mountain like a gilded needle. By day, it was merely beautiful; in the night, it truly glowed.

Sifan was a nation of islands, occupying an archipelago northeast of the Tiraan continent, in balmy waters sheltered from the equatorial storms by a combination of fortuitous ocean currents and the protection of another continental shelf to the north. Several of its largest landmasses approached each other in one spot, near the geographic center of the archipelago, where the space between them was further marked out by small, rocky islands in the channels dividing the major isles. The result was a nearly perfect circle of calm, glassy water with the rounded mountain of Kiyosan at its precise center.

The city’s selection as capital was inevitable. The symbolism, its central location, its defensibility all made it an ideal choice.

It had the further advantage of being surrounded by several of the nation’s other notable sights. The Temple Island guarded the passage to the northwest, surmounted by a stunning temple of Ouvis and with multiple shrines to Naphthene at its base. The temple was a work of art to rival the capital itself, the bulk of the island terraced to form ingenious hanging gardens, while the ancient shrines mostly left to the wild—Naphthene had no organized worshipers to maintain them, but fishermen, merchants and others who depended on the sea’s grace for their livelihood chipped in when they needed repair.

To the south, ringed by fortresses and heavily patrolled, the city was faced by the Underworld entrance which led directly to the drow city of Nathloss. These were possibly the only drow in the world who had developed a knack for sailing, though that skill had lain fallow for some decades, the skirmishes between the two kingdoms having been ended by Sifanese fortifications around the tunnel mouth. In fact, given the duty of these surrounding sentinel isles in defending the capital, many of them housed garrisons and fortresses, or at minimum watchtowers. The only exception was the face of Tsurikura, a smaller but still major island in the archipelago, which for the last century had been home to the several orcish clans who lived in Sifan on the royal family’s hospitality. To post guards over the orcs would have been a dangerous insult, and anyway was not necessary; the clans were fiercely loyal to the human nation which had given them a home after the cataclysm in Athan’Khar.

North and slightly east, the towering cliff face of Kinosyuke Island rose toward a mountain peak, but broke off a bit more than halfway there. The jagged perimeter of the peak still remained around two thirds of the rim, but the rest had become a smooth, slightly bowl-shaped depression, tilted to face the bay and carpeted with lush grasses.

The meadow was nearly impossible to reach except by a single, terrifyingly dangerous staircase carved into the living rock of the cliff, which today was sealed off and guarded by royal samurai. Only the peak of the Palace itself rose high enough to overlook the lofty meadow, and on this day, the Palace’s upper rooms were closed and emptied of people, the Queen holding her court in the larger audience chamber at its base. There were few telescopes in Kiyosan powerful enough to enable a viewer to read the lips of those meeting there, and they had been moved to storerooms deep within the mountain and locked away. Samurai in their iconic armor patrolled the upper reaches of the cliffs surrounding the meadow, accompanied by robed mage-priests, without exception facing outward to safeguard the Queen’s guests’ privacy against any would-be interlopers. They carried no chains, ropes, or any means of securing prisoners. In this matter, Queen Takamatsu’s mercy extended only to a swift death.

They were not the only sentinels. At one end of the oval meadow, a green dragon sat, his long neck extended upright and slowly swiveling to study every detail of the surroundings. He would periodically rise, pace to a new position and resume his vigil. At the other end lay a larger specimen with sapphire scales, apparently asleep, except for his wide-open eyes. He had not blinked once since taking his position. The Sifanese watchers gave them both a respectful berth.

The Queen had not arranged any protections over the mountain against scrying. Laying spells of any kind on the place preparatory to the visitors’ arrival might have been taken amiss, and in any case, her guests were amply able to attend to such details themselves.

A veritable banquet had been laid out in the center of the valley, long tables heavily laden with delicacies of every description, and all of a quality fit to grace any royal dining hall. The whole thing seemed somewhat incongruous in its loneliness; no servants attended the tables, and no guests stood near them. Several servants had stood watch to protect the food from birds and rodents until the guests of honor had begun to arrive, at which point every small animal in the valley had very sensibly gone into hiding. Now, the visitors were all off to one side, ignoring the sumptuous feast and thronged in a huddle around a single figure.

Or, actually, two, counting the infant in her arms.

Razzavinax stood several feet back, keeping watch and looking thoroughly smug, but letting Maiyenn have the spotlight. She was nested comfortably in a basket chair piled with pillows, her earlier unease at the presence of all these dragons forgotten, and now looking serenely pleased with herself. Around her were piled gifts to the new dragonmother from various “uncles,” selected with care from over a dozen hoards and representing a staggering amount of wealth. Jewels, fine fabrics and powerful enchantments were the running themes among the miniature hoard that had taken shape.

The men huddled around her were of every race and description, though nearly all of them favored paler complexions that pleasingly offset their starkly chromatic hair and gem-like eyes. They rotated in and out, very gently pushing and jockeying for position so that each could have a moment in the front, with the best view of the little one, and all of them remaining respectfully quiet and not moving to touch either the infant or his beaming mother, though several were clearly tempted. Eager whispers and even incongruous cooing were constantly heard, the latter of which would be politely forgotten by everyone here who knew what was good for him.

Through it all, the child slept like a stone, his shock of thick, white hair tousled in the gentle breeze that blew over the valley. Everything else was swaddled up in a thick, quilted blanket of embroidered silk that could have graced a royal throne; only his sleeping face and the blunt fingers of one tiny hand emerged from his cocoon.

“Has he told you his name yet?” a slender human with viridian hair asked eagerly.

“Oh, don’t be an ass, he’s a newborn,” scoffed a more thickly built blue. “He’ll talk in his own time.”

“Hmf. How long’s that take?”

“How long did it take you?”

A piercing cry cut off their argument. The guest of honor had awakened.

“Gentlemen,” Maiyenn said with sharp reproach. “Quietly, please.”

Murmured apologies were all but lost in the infant’s wailing; the assembled dragons rapidly drifted away while his mother attempted to soothe him, breaking formation and then re-convening as they approached the banquet table. Razzavinax stepped up beside Maiyenn, stroking her hair once and bending to whisper to the child.

“They’re cute at that age, aren’t they?” Zanzayed noted. He had been the first to lose interest in the baby and make for the food, and was idly preparing a plate by the time the others got there. “Ah, how time flies. Before you know it he’ll be flying, then taking a woman of his own, siring the next generation… And possibly killing off a couple of you louts in the process. How time flies.”

“I see you haven’t changed in the centuries since I’ve seen you,” a green with an elven form said acrimoniously. “That’s excellent to know. I am spared wondering whether it would be worthwhile to look you up again.” Zanzayed just laughed at him.

“Let us please refrain from arguing, inasmuch as it is possible,” Ampophrenon said firmly. He was attired in flowing golden robes, having left off his armor as a symbolic gesture.

“One does not assemble eighteen dragons in one location and expect proceedings to be entirely peaceful,” remarked a blue in the form of a dwarf. He wore his beard in the old dwarven style, untrimmed all the way down past his belt. That plus its striking cobalt color made for an interesting sight.

“As I said,” Ampophrenon replied with a smile, “inasmuch as possible. Content yourselves with the bounty of her Majesty’s generosity, and be mindful of the little one present. I do not expect us all to agree on everything—or even much—but there is no reason we cannot limit our contention to words.”

“Well spoken,” Razzavinax agreed, joining them and nodding to Ampophrenon. The gold nodded back, somewhat stiffly, but politely. Several of the others muttered, but followed the advice tendered, occupying themselves with delicacies and wines. It sufficed, for the moment, to keep peace among the group. In the near distance, Maiyenn succeeded in rocking her infant son back to sleep.

They were an eclectic group, but in their variety were consistent themes. Human forms were the most common, though elves and dwarves and a single gnome were represented as well. Two others besides Zanzayed presented themselves as half-elves. One green dragon wore attire of homespun brown, and a blue was dressed in a dashing doublet and breeches (three hundred years out of style) in black, but all the rest dressed themselves to show pride in their colors, and in most cases to show wealth. Blues and greens overwhelmingly predominated, with a rough balance between the two colors. There were, however, four reds (including the gnome), and one youthful-looking human dressed in green, whose hair and eyes were an intermediate shade, signifying his ongoing transition to gold. He kept mostly to himself, and the others gave him a radius, politely ignoring him much as they would have averted their gazes from one another’s hoards.

“I, for one, am eager to hear the point of this meeting,” said a red, who wore a dashing cape over a sharp modern suit in black with scarlet accents. “It’s impressive indeed that you’ve managed to assemble so many of us. This has to be nearly everyone still alive on our continent. What’s the urgency?”

“Can’t it wait till after eating?” inquired a somewhat sloppily-dressed blue in disdainful tones.

“On the contrary,” said Razzavinax, “I am all in favor of discussing business over lunch. If nothing else, it may help keep the peace if we all have something into which to sink our teeth besides each other.”

There were several chuckles at this.

“Very well, then,” said Ampophrenon. “Zanzayed, you first brought the matter forth. Would you begin, please?”

“Wait, we’re here because of Zanza?” scoffed a green dragon, a human with a beard of almost dwarven proportions. “I do wish someone had warned me of that. I could have spared myself a long flight.”

“Hush,” said a fellow green curtly. The bearded one rounded on him.

“Did you just tell me to—”

“Will you think? Everyone here was rallied by either Ampophrenon or Razzavinax. This is important, to bring them into agreement. Besides, the very fact that Zanzayed is a self-indulgent twit is telling; what could be so dire that it would shift him from wasting time on his own tomfoolery?”

“It’s so gratifying to be appreciated,” Zanzayed stated with a beatific smile. “We really should have these reunions more often.”

“Zanza,” Razzavinax said dryly. “Your story, please?”

“Oh, fine, fine.” Zanzayed set down his plate, tucking a bite of sashimi into his mouth and chewing languorously before continuing. The assembled dragons stared at him with a mixture of expressions that revealed a unified opinion of his meager theatrics. Finally, he swallowed and continued. “Some of you may have heard rumors already, but to bring out the full truth: this is about Khadizroth.”

“I wondered at his absence,” remarked a young blue. “It’s unlike him not to insert himself into anything important occurring.”

“You’re about to hear why,” Zanzayed said darkly. “Khadizroth had himself a plan to take down the Tiraan Empire: he adopted a group of elves the Empire had thoroughly beaten and was raising their young females to be loyal to him. Once they were of age, he planned to use them to sire a whole family of dragons to contend with Tiraas.”

“That’s disgusting!”

“Khadizroth did that? You lie. He’s even more puritanical than Puff and twice as pompous!”

“Oh, I don’t know, it sounds rather elegant to me. Anyway, what should it bother us if someone humbles this Empire?”

“No dragon needs that kind of power. What would happen once he was done with Tiraas? We would have been next, one at a time!”

“It’d never have worked anyway. If you attack humans on that scale, the Pantheon gets involved. Never fails.”

“Attacking overtly, yes, but there are subtler—”

“Please,” Razzavinax said firmly, cutting off the growing argument. “Let him finish. Everything will become clear, I assure you.”

“A thousand thanks, Razz,” Zanzayed said, smirking. “I assure you, gentlemen, I haven’t flown off in a tizzy about this without first verifying it. I spoke to the elven tribes currently fostering Khadizroth’s ex-harem. It seems the whole thing fell apart when some of his breeding stock decided that compared to serving in his plans, the pilgrimage to Athan’Khar was the lesser evil. He found himself with something in his nest that he was not prepared to contend with.”

“Is he dead?” asked the gnomish red, grinning.

“No,” said Zanzayed with uncharacteristic grimness. “No, that is where we come to the real problem. Khadizroth reached above himself and was humbled; if the story stopped there, I would consider it adequately resolved. First, he was attacked by Tiraan interests. Adventurers, specifically, including the Crow, who laid a geas on him binding him to his lesser form.”

“The Crow, working with the Tiraan?” interrupted an elven blue. “That’s even less believable.”

“If I understood why the Crow does anything, maybe I could manage to have a conversation with her that doesn’t degenerate into shouting and fireballs,” Zanzayed said sourly. “It hasn’t happened yet. I’ve not asked her, but I assure you, this happened. And I haven’t come to the serious part yet. Thus weakened, Khadizroth was…conscripted. By the Universal Church. Justinian means to use him as some kind of enforcer, in exchange for seeking a cure for his condition.”

Angry mutters circled around the group; one member actually growled.

“How certain are you of this?” demanded the red in the suit. “What’s your evidence?”

“This last part I witnessed myself, having tracked him to Onkawa.”

“And there the matter stands,” said Ampophrenon, raising his voice slightly over the murmuring of the assembled dragons. “As I see it—as well as Zanzayed and Razzavinax—Khadizroth’s temerity has been adequately punished already. The matter of chief concern now is that his situation reflects dangerously upon us all. It is unequivocally unacceptable for a mortal power to have a dragon under its thumb. Any mortal power, but Archpope Justinian is a particularly dangerous specimen. We must remedy this. Does anyone disagree?”

There were more angry mutters, but no voices raised in coherent statement until the gnome spoke again. “What are you proposing, then?”

“That is what we have assembled to discuss,” Razzavinax said smoothly. “Above all else, we must proceed carefully. The methods we have always used in such situations are simply not optional. The might of the Empire and the Church are sufficient to beat back any assault one or a few of us launched; if we attacked in unison, we would inevitably find ourselves contending with the Pantheon.”

“That’s awfully pessimistic,” the dwarven blue commented.

“Not at all,” Razzavinax replied, “I am simply explaining the situation. I consider this far from hopeless—at least, with regard to accomplishing our goals. The greatest difficulty, I think, will be adjusting our own habits to do what we will need to.”

“Which is?”

He smiled. “We must think like mortals.”

“What, with our dicks?” A green with short hair grinned broadly. “Done and done.”

Several burst out laughing, several others glared at him in disgust. Ampophrenon closed his eyes and began whispering a prayer for patience; Zanzayed shook his head and picked up his plate again, resuming his lunch.

The ground shook as the large blue who had been standing guard at the far end of the valley landed beside them.

“Pay attention,” he growled, not bothering to shift into his smaller form. “We are old and set in our ways. We rarely if ever work together. Most of us do not like Razzavinax, or respect Zanzayed. These are facts. It is also a fact that the world has changed around us, and we have failed dismally to adjust to it… With the exceptions of Razzavinax and Zanzayed. The situation is too dire for this nonsense. Pay. Attention.”

Silence held.

“Thank you, Ramandiloth,” Razzavinax said politely, bowing to the elder blue. “As I was saying, gentlemen, what we must do in order to extract Khadizroth from Justinian’s clutches is move among the humans. Either ourselves, or more likely, using agents. We cannot fall upon them with fire and claws and magics; a subtler form of warfare is necessary.”

“Skulking and spying is beneath us,” scoffed a red.

“And diplomacy?” Ampophrenon asked, raising an eyebrow.

“Definitely beneath us,” the red grinned.

“Fine,” said Razzavinax. “Don’t participate. Go back to your den and wait for death.”

He narrowed his eyes. “Is that a threat?”

“I am far beyond needing to threaten any of you. Ramandiloth spoke correctly: those of us who have adapted most successfully to the way the world is now are myself, Ampophrenon and Zanzayed. I have bent my knowledge toward the establishment of my school, and carved out a place for myself in the politics of the mortal world. An important place that prevents them from moving against me. Ampophrenon’s Holy Order have credibility and history, even if their actual power is diminished of late. Zanza, though he rarely seeks to accomplish anything of worth, has grown adept at moving among mortal societies and even being accepted within them. Why would I threaten you? If I wished any of you dead, I would simply withhold my counsel and aid in reaching your own accommodations with the mortals and wait for it to happen.”

There were ugly mutters at this, but Razzavinax pressed on. “Beyond the immediate situation with Khadizroth, I must propose something even more radical: it is time for us to organize ourselves. Permanently.”

Another disturbance began to develop, made of equal parts laughter and shouted outrage, and managed to mature for all of two seconds before Ramandiloth snorted loudly. Everyone fell silent.

“This,” Ampophrenon said quietly, “is not what we discussed.”

“You are correct,” Razzavinax replied, nodding to him. “But I see no other way. In order to employ our power effectively against and within the mortal societies in which we must now move, we need to be unified in purpose and in method. This requires a common plan and a suitable division of labor. And while we are arranging this to contend with the present urgency, it is illogical not to look to the future. It’s a new world, gentlemen. We can’t live in it as we have. The simple fact is that the mortal races have less to fear from us than ever before, and no less reason to resent us. Right now the balance has shifted so that we are roughly even in power with many potential mortal enemies—a stark shift, for we are all accustomed to being the unchallenged terrors of their world. That balance will continue to shift, until we find ourselves at an outright disadvantage. The crisis forces us to act now. If you truly insist upon doing so and then going back to the way you were…” He shrugged. “As I said, I for one can simply wait for you to die.”

“Bloody hell,” Zanzayed grumbled. “If I’d known Khadizroth’s nonsense would lead to this I’d have just killed the idiot while I had him under my eyes.”

“Wasted opportunity,” snorted the gnome. “Story of your life.”

“Why are you so eager to establish at…permanent dragonmoot?” demanded a blue who had not spoken yet. “Since you’re so comfy with that school in which you take such pride.”

“A valid question indeed,” Razzavinax said gravely. “I am eager because however you argue the point—and I know many of you will—I am right, and you are all too intelligent not to see it eventually. Our species will not die out. We will see the truth and take the only possible action to face the future. And when that happens, I would far rather be a founding part of the draconic order that forms than hide on my island and wait for it to overwhelm me.”

“Hmph,” Ampophrenon grunted. “You do speak sense. And there are precedents among the mortals. Societies that govern along democratic lines.”

“Governed,” the dwarven blue said acidly. “Past tense. None of those last; democracy is inherently unstable.”

“Because such societies are comparatively enormous,” Ampophrenon replied calmly. “They are groups of thousands, even millions of individuals. They demand enormously complex rules and structures just to run, each its own manifold opportunity for the enterprising and corrupt to pick apart the system. We are eighteen. There are scarcely more than a hundred of us left in the world. If we cannot manage to bend ourselves toward a common goal…then perhaps we deserve to die out.”

A thoughtful quiet answered him.

Ramandiloth’s reverberating voice broke it. “This will not be decided upon, much less organized, easily. Certainly not quickly. But I support this goal.”

“We have not the luxury of years to dither,” said Razzavinax with a small smile, “but the matter is not of an urgency that will overtake us in the next day. There is time, brethren. Not much time, but enough. Come, we have a great deal to discuss.”

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6 – 18

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The island was little more than a huge boulder, an outcropping of black volcanic rock that rose from the choppy surface of the Deep Southern Sea. Constantly pounded by some of the world’s harshest weather, it had been carved by winds and waves over eons till the isle was very nearly artistic, an abstract shape of both sweeping curves facing the prevailing northern winds, and its original sharp edges and rough surfaces to the south and east. A kind of prow of weathered stone rose against the fury of the north, sheltering a flat surface below it. There was no harbor, natural or otherwise, nothing around the base of the formation except jagged outcroppings of rock. No one who visited the Black Isle came by ship.

In the lee of the stone, the bleak natural valley had been further carved out to form an amphitheater. Shafts sunk deep into the ground produced heat, reddish light and a constant scent of sulfur—not a pleasant effect, but sufficient to counter the frigid climate. The skies were overcast as usual, the wind fierce where it whistled against the northern bulwark and merely obtrusive where it eddied around and into the sheltered arena. Occasional spurts of rain and sleet splattered down, the latter quickly melting; what didn’t steam away in the heat of the shafts drained into slots cunningly worked into the floor against the walls. It was a serviceable place to meet, but not a comfortable one. The isle’s denizens did not expect, want or deserve comfort, as a rule.

The roughly two dozen people assembled around the amphitheater’s seats were a mixed lot, the only common point among them being the spell effect laid upon the island which obscured their faces. Looking at one another, they found the eye would simply slip away from features, leaving no memory or possibility of recognition; voices, too, were only so much neutral sound, conveying information but making no impression on the listener. It was for good reason that their identities were hidden from one another. They were a mixed bag, mostly humans with more than a handful of gnomes and even two elves, a male drow and a blonde woman with the horizontal ears of the prairie folk. Their costumes were eclectic, but among them were six in the gray robes of the Black Wreath, two in black Universal Church chaplain’s coats, and three in blue Tiraan Army uniforms bearing the insignia of the Imperial Strike Corps.

“Everyone you see here will die,” they were informed by the figure standing in the center of the amphitheater’s stage. “Not merely in the sense that all living things die. Statistically? The only question for a warlock is whether they are brought to a swift end by something they have summoned or provoked…or lived to be slowly destroyed from within by their own growing powers. Perhaps you will be the exception, the rare practitioner who cultivates control, restraint and mastery to the point that they never call up more than they can handle. You would not be here if you lacked the ambition, surely.” He smiled coldly and begin to prowl back and forth around the rim of the stage. “There have been a few, over the centuries. Several I have personally known, others of whom I have heard. It is not, however, likely. I would venture to say it is barely possible. No…by the numbers, you can expect to die before your time. Likely in agony.” He came to a stop, folding his hands behind his back and staring up at them. “Your success on this path will hinge on your refusal to accept this fact.”

The figures on the dais were exempt from the face-blurring effect. Two women were positioned at either end: stage left, a statuesque figure in a Sifanese kimono, altered to provide egress for her wings and tail, stood serenely at attention, still as a statue except when the wind tugged at her hair. At the opposite end, another woman sat in a wooden chair beside a glowing brazier, swathed in so many layers of furs that nothing of her was visible except for her angular features, olive Tiraan complexion and black hair. Beside her crouched a sshitherosz demon, diminutive and twisted, refilling her cup from a steaming pitcher when she gestured. At the back, not far from the succubus, a dark-skinned man in a dapper white suit lounged in a chair of his own, observing the lecture with a broad smile.

The speaker was a tall man with long crimson hair bound back in a high tail; despite the cold and the wind, he wore only a thin layer of black silk, his pants snug and ending above the ankle, his shirt ruffled and open all down the front, whipping around him with each gust. He wore no shoes. His eyes were as red as his hair, and featureless as the blank expanse of rock above him.

“It is an absurd and narrow line to walk,” he continued, beginning to pace again. “The moment you accept the reality of your own death, you may be assured that it will immediately rush toward you. The moment you presume yourself above such concern, the same. Habit and complacency are your enemies; caution and self-knowledge your allies, denial and aggression your weapons. Yes, this is every bit as impossible a combination as it sounds. That, my children, characterizes the path of the warlock. For a mortal to undertake it with any degree of success, they must be quite mad, and in exactly the right way. While you are here, you will learn to cultivate that madness, and to keep its more dangerous cousins at bay.”

His smile widened fractionally. “The infernal is the gift of Scyllith, never forget, and her gifts are each their own cost. She is the goddess of cruelty. Power she grants us, yes, but with it comes suffering. There is no cheating, students. The best you can achieve is to move the suffering you have earned onto your enemies rather than bearing it yourselves.”

Above the constant whine of the wind came a deeper rush of air, followed by another. Several of those attending the lecture tore their gaze from the speaker to look around at the sky. Aside from the gray banks of clouds that flowed by overhead, a heavy mist obscured even the near distance, wisps of cloud and sea spray making fantastic shadows against the anonymous gloom.

Then the source of the wing beats emerged from the mist, and the assembly devolved into panic. Students leaped to their feet, several calling up spells of fire and shadow, as an enormous blue dragon dived out of the darkness and banked, circling around the arena.

“PEACE!” thundered the man on the stage. “Discard those spells immediately!”

It was a testament to his authority that everyone obeyed, though not all quickly, and most with evident apprehension. The dragon made another circling pass, arcing out to sea and approached the island again from the south. This time he came in lower, beating his wings, and settled to the stone just above the lip of the arena.

Nearly all the warlocks by this point had risen and turned, facing the colossal shape that now loomed above them, folding his wings and arching his neck to stare superciliously down his long nose.

“And if this had been a live exercise?” said the speaker calmly. “What would have befallen had you been in the middle of calling up a bank of raw power? Of negotiating with a sshitherosz, casting the protections on a ritual circle? What if you had been so thoroughly distracted in the middle of creating the simplest shadowbolt that you drew more power than you could safely contain? Perhaps nothing. Perhaps a creeping cancer whose effects you would not have felt for years. Or perhaps you would simply have detonated on the spot. Each of those things has happened to unwary learners in this very stadium.”

Again he had the attention of his listeners, though many had settled for positioning themselves sideways, reluctant to turn their backs on the looming dragon.

“Control,” he said fervently. “You must cultivate control. Absolute control, at all times, in all situations! The world is not a classroom, children. You never know when a dragon will swoop down upon you, or anything else. Your means of dealing with these events are through a power that actively seeks to destroy you. Not by anything can you afford to be surprised.”

The blue dragon huffed softly—relatively softly for his size, which produced a booming exhalation that made almost all of the assembled warlocks flinch violently. On the stage below, the speaker sighed heavily, dragging his hand over his face in a pantomime of despair.

“This lesson is ended,” he said. “You will return to your cells and spend time in meditation; I will be testing you further in the future, and those of you who do not learn to face surprises with equanimity will not leave this island alive. On that note, it has come to my attention that several of you have been attempting to learn the identities of your fellow students.” He actually grinned at them, an expression that was far from kind. “I expect a certain amount of natural curiosity from students, just as I expect the various organizations who sent some of you to grab any opportunity to scheme against each other. I can afford to tolerate this affront to my neutrality because, I assure you, I know precisely who has done what, and how. Any of you who succeed in learning something you should not know will be dead before you can do anything with that information. Keep that in mind. You are dismissed.”

There was no conversation among the students as they filed out of the arena through narrow doorways cut into the living rock, though there were many furtive glances up at the visiting dragon. On the stage, the speaker waited impassively for them to clear out. The woman in the furs was also studying the blue dragon, though with apparent calm; she tapped her goblet with a fingertip and the sshitherosz hastened to refill it with steaming hot cider. The succubus remained stiffly aloof; the man in white grinned widely, tilting his head forward so the brim of his hat concealed his eyes.

“Your timing is execrable as always, Zanzayed,” said the man in black when the last of his pupils had filed out.

“I thought you handled that very well,” the dragon rumbled. “Working it into the lesson, even! Very adroit. It is, by the way, nice to see you too, Razzavinax.”

“Mm.” The red dragon tilted his head infinitesimally to one side. “What do you want?”

“Things are afoot,” said Zanzayed. “It’s time we had a talk.” He unfurled his wings and beat them once, launching forward; his massive bulk lunged at the stage with terrifying speed.

The woman in the furs shrieked, dropping her goblet and pressing herself back into her chair, but Zanzayed shrank even as he plummeted down on them, and also slowed. He drifted the last few yards like a leaf, his blue robes fluttering gracefully around him, and came to rest only a few feet from her.

She flinched again at his approach, but he bowed deeply and spoke in a much gentler tone. “Dear lady, upon my blood and my life, you have nothing at all to fear from me, nor any of my kin.” He straightened, turning to give Razzavinax a faintly reproachful look. “You’ve not explained it to her?”

“It isn’t a subject I expected to come up,” the red said dryly. “We are not, as you know, sociable creatures as a rule, and I in particular am unaccustomed to civil visits from our brethren.” He strode over to her chair, coming to a stop with his hand reassuringly on the woman’s shoulder. “Zanzayed the Blue, this is my consort, Maiyenn. May, this is Zanza, a fool and a reprobate.”

“And proud of my achievements in these fields,” Zanzayed said, grinning. “Razzavinax is right to imply he is less than popular among our kind, but that does not reflect upon you, my dear. By ancient compact, a dragon’s mother is sacrosanct, and owed the highest of respect from all of us.”

“Really,” she said, her voice a warm alto and showing no signs of her earlier fear. “I can’t imagine there are very many living at any one time.”

“Indeed not,” Zanzayed replied smoothly, “and thus even more precious.”

“If it should come to pass that you need aid of any kind and I am unavailable, my love, you can call upon any dragon,” said Razzavinax. “This, of course, I do not foresee. But as I was just telling the lambs…life is unpredictable.”

“I would have expected the others to seize the opportunity to prune a red’s bloodline,” Maiyenn murmured, freeing one hand from her enveloping furs to rest it against her belly. It was not immediately apparent in her swaddled shape, but this motion made clear the outline of her body, very heavily pregnant.

“Unthinkable,” Zanzayed said firmly. “A dragon may defend himself if you attack him, but even so it would be with the greatest care not to harm you. The rest of our kin would turn on any who failed to aid a dragonmother in need. That one of us might actively do you ill… It is simply inconceivable.”

“And he may not be a red,” Razzavinax added quietly, stroking her hair. “It will be a good many years before he need decide that. In any case, Zanzayed, I cannot imagine you came here to educate my mate on draconic etiquette. In fact, it strains my faculties to infer just what you are doing here. We have a notable lack of wine, music and silk cushions on this island.”

“I bet that contributes to all that going mad you were talking about a minute ago,” the blue said cheerily. “I believe I can feel it starting already. Yoo hoo!” he added, waving exuberantly to the man in white. “Embras, is that you? Fancy meeting you here!”

“Fancy is, I believe, an applicable word,” Embras Mogul replied, tipping his hat to the dragon and dragging his eyes pointedly over Zanzayed’s lavishly embroidered and bejeweled robe.

“We have dragon business to discuss,” the blue said, turning back to Razzavinax. “The kind that should be attended to in private. Obviously the lady has your trust, but Embras should go in search of something else to occupy his attention for the time being.”

“Everyone on this isle is here as my guest, Zanzayed,” Razzavinax remarked pointedly. “Some are less invited than others. Long experience has taught me that of all the fools who meddle in the powers of Hell, Elilial’s chosen are by a wide margin the most responsible, and the most concerned with keeping overall order in the world. Embras is a respected ally and someone with whom I often consult.”

“Be that as it may,” Zanzayed said rather grimly, “I’m afraid I’ll have to insist.”

Razzavinax stroked Maiyenn’s hair again and replied in a very mild tone. “You what?”

“Come on, have you ever known me to be pushy? Or, hell, to take an interest at all? This is important, Razz. I’ve already been to see Puff about this, and that clubhouse of his has got to be the only place on this green world even more tedious than yours. I assure you, when I’m done explaining you will be very glad we didn’t have this discussion in front of the Black bloody Wreath.”

“Does Ampophrenon know you still call him that?”

“Only when I do it to his face,” Zanza replied with a grin, “so yes.”

“Mm.” Razzavinax gazed contemplatively at the blue for a long moment before turning to face the others present. “Embras, I’ll have to ask you to resume our business later. Riz will escort you back to your quarters and attend to any needs you may have.”

“Well, it appears the world is increasingly interesting for everyone,” Mogul remarked, getting to his feet. The succubus bowed to him. “Till later, then.”

The dragons and Maiyenn watched as they disappeared through a curtained doorway at the back of the stage.

“I must say I’ve never seen a succubus who wasn’t…y’know, flouncing and smirking. Or so conservatively dressed. How did you manage to housebreak her?”

“Rizlith is an old friend,” Razzavinax said with a smile. “Last year I obtained a very rare artifact from one of the Deep Hells, a toy used by a demon species there to control the children of Vanislaas. Allegedly it commands absolute, unconditional obedience from them, several steps beyond what the Black Wreath have achieved with contracts and reliquary bindings. She’s testing it for me, seeing if she can work around it or break the effect within a year. The kimono is…shall we say, added incentive. She’s only got six months left, and no progress.”

“Three months,” Maiyenn said, leaning her head against his hand.

Razzavinax blinked, tilting his head to one side. “Why, you’re right, love. By Elilial’s horns, don’t let me forget to release her on time. There’ll be hell to pay if she’s in that thing an hour longer than agreed.”

“I have it well in hand,” Maiyenn replied with a smile. “There’s likely to be hell to pay anyway if you don’t stop putting her in silly costumes.”

“In any case.” Razzavinax turned back to his guest. “I’ll show you to my personal chambers, and then we can see what is so urgent.”


 

“I must say, it sounds very out of character for Khadizroth,” Razzavinax mused, standing by the window and gazing out at the storm-blasted sea. His chamber was enormous, big enough for him to assume his greater form, and much of it strewn liberally with his hoard. The riches piled in the cavern would have bought a kingdom; Zanzayed, of course, kept his eyes politely averted from it, taking care to stay oriented so that only the smaller nook to one side of the chamber was in his field of view. This was arranged to accommodate more human-sized luxury, complete with a lavish canopy bed, roaring fireplace, piles of embroidered rugs softening the stone floor and even modern fairy lights in decorative sconces. The expensive furnishings were all mismatched, though, as if gleaned from the hoard itself.

Maiyenn had ensconced herself in an armchair by the fireplace with another goblet of steaming hot cider, having dismissed her demon before they came indoors. There was only one window, and it was open to the elements; she kept as far from it as possible, though her gaze stayed unblinkingly on Razzavinax.

“It seems to contradict what you’ve told me about dragonkind,” she said. “And even I know Khadizroth’s name. I agree; it’s surprising that he would do such a thing.”

“Which is precisely why I didn’t take anyone’s word for it,” Zanzayed said with a hint of exasperation. “I did my own research, found the surviving Cobalt Dawn elves in their new homes—several of them, anyway, as I didn’t much feel like fighting with whole groves of elves just to verify somebody’s presence. Moreover, I saw him with my own eyes, which is how I learned the latter and more disturbing part of this affair.”

“Yes,” Razzavinax murmured, “that. So Archpope Justinian has a dragon at his command. That is…absolutely unacceptable.”

“Quite,” Zanzayed said firmly. “Which brings us to now. As I said, I’ve already been to see Ampophrenon. He is seeking out the others, those who can be found and who are willing to listen. As I’m sure you know, in the best-case scenario we’re not likely to rally more than half a dozen unless we start looking on the other continents. Even in the face of a crisis, dragons will be dragons. Naturally,” he added, grinning, “we mutually agreed that Puff was a better emissary for most, but it would be best if I came to speak to you.”

“How refreshing it is to be included,” Razzavinax said solemnly, turning to face him.

“Not just included. You’re… Well, let me put it this way. How the hell did you get all those people up there to sit quietly together? Nevermind them all being warlocks, the politics alone! By all rights that stadium should have been soaked in blood.”

“I assure you, it has been,” the red replied with a thin, humorless smile. “Your problem, Zanzayed, is the same problem that has reduced Ampophrenon’s vaunted Order of the Light to impotent anonymity. All the solutions you seek are through the exercise of power. More and more, the world does not respond to such an approach.”

“Yes, we all know how powerful the humans have become…”

“There! You’re doing it again.” Razzavinax crossed over to Maiyenn’s side, seating himself on the arm of her chair; she leaned against him, closing her eyes. “It is not about power, Zanzayed. It’s about understanding. The humans’ capacity to unleash destructive force is by far the lesser consideration, as they themselves learned when they wiped out Athan’Khar. Such dramatic actions demand a swift and brutal price. The developments that have most changed the face of the world are about connection. Everything is more tightly and intricately linked to everything else; the web expands all the time, even as it solidifies. We are accustomed to being able to act in a relative vacuum. Now, though, moving any one piece on this incomprehensibly vast board shifts them all, and it is simply not possible to foresee how.”

“What’s your secret, then?” asked Zanza.

“It’s hardly a secret; everyone operating in the mortal world has a handle on it—even your Arachne, which is truly astonishing to those of us who know her. If you would move among the mortals, you must move with care and caution, with precision, acting only where you can do so to achieve the effect you want without causing a great destructive shift in the whole interconnected world.”

“I have to say when you describe it that way it doesn’t sound terribly…possible,” Zanzayed said skeptically.

Razzavinax grinned at him. “Oh, it hardly is. In the old days, one simply slew the knight or wizard who came marauding into one’s lair. If they wouldn’t quit, one would go and put their kingdoms to the flame. That’s the approach suitable for dealing with vermin, after all. We cannot consider the mortal races as vermin anymore, Zanzayed. They’re as clever as we, they have new and complex powers, and their greatest strength, as I have said, is in the links they have cultivated with each other. Think of them as…very small dragons.”

“All of them?” Zanzayed asked faintly.

“Some more than others,” Razzavinax allowed. “But in general, yes. Beings with the will, the wits and the capacity to act effectively. Millions of them. The challenge is also the key to solving it: you focus on the connections between them more than the individuals themselves. It’s about manipulation. Politics. Cunning over force.”

Zanzayed sighed heavily. “And this is why I campaigned to have you involved, Razz. You’re right; none of the rest of us are accustomed to dealing with mortals in this way. Even Puff, whose flipping job it is.”

“And that’s why his Order is in decline,” Razzavinax said smugly.

“Are you in, then?”

The red sighed. “I will have to make arrangements for my students… But I don’t see how I can afford to leave this to Puff and…you. Yes, I will support you.”

“Smashing!” Zanza grinned broadly.

“I’m coming with you,” Maiyenn said firmly. “Don’t even try to argue.”

“My dear one,” Razzavinax murmured, lifting her hand to his lips, “why would you think I would permit anything else? I believe we can afford to wait for the little one to come; it shan’t be more than a few weeks.”

“That’ll be good and entertaining,” Zanzayed muttered. “What’s your plan, then? Since you are to be our designated human expert.”

“The Universal Church is a nut not easily cracked,” Razzavinax mused, gazing into the fire and stroking Maiyenn’s hair. “The exact nature of the Archpope’s relationship to the Pantheon is…difficult to tease out. Several of Justinian’s predecessors have engaged in activities that were decidedly against the wishes of the gods. As, certainly, has he. However, he unquestionably enjoys their protection. To come at him with force would be to rile the Pantheon, a thing which has never ended well for out kind. No… Before we act, we will have to investigate.”

“Investigate what?” Zanza demanded. “And how?”

“Why, haven’t you been listening?” Razzavinax smiled at him. “We must discern the nature of Justinian’s connections. Find out who is moving against and around him, and how; where his Church is strong and where it is vulnerable. We must suss out the currents within his organization to learn just how we can separate Khadizroth from his clutches. In short, cousin… It’s high time we paid an extended visit to Tiraas.”

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6 – 1

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The mountain of the Citadel was another leftover from the long-ago Elder War, a testament to the cataclysmic powers that had been unleashed on the world. The continent’s northern coast consisted entirely of the towering Dwarnskold mountain range, shielding the lands to the south from the raging equatorial storms, but giving them no harbor or access to the sea of any kind between Puna Dara and Onkawa. Near the longitudinal center of the range stood a particularly huge peak, whole and imposing when viewed from the sea, but its leeward side hollowed out as if an egg-shaped chunk had been neatly scooped out of it. The damage had been done by one of the rampaging Elder Gods, leaving behind an artifact much like the half-sunken plateau at Last Rock, the several massive craters in the Deep Wild, and the shorn-off mountain of Tiraas. These and other things loomed here and there in the world, a reminder to mortals not to reach above themselves, for there were powers in the world well beyond their ken.

On most of these mighty relics, mortals had built something as a testament to their own greatness, and the Lee was no exception.

Far more than the University at Last Rock or even Tiraas itself, though, the Citadel on the Lee was a marvel to rival the grandeur of its setting. The fortress itself hovered near the center of the great, smooth gap in the mountain, supported by towering pillars of stone connecting it to both the floor of the basin and the overhanging ceiling high above. Branching out from the central structure, held in place by networks of massive chains and deceptively slender columns, were smaller “islands” bristling with greenery, as did the terraces of the Citadel itself. These hanging gardens, aside from being a wonder of the world, more than amply supported the population of the Citadel.

The basin far below the lofty structure formed a sheltered lake, now, filled with the runoff from the Citadel’s irrigation system. A network of tunnels and cisterns carved into the living rock of the remaining mountain funneled water from the storms that wracked its northern side, leaving the Citadel sheltered on the mild-weathered Lee while still amply provided for, despite the vast desert stretching out from the foot of the mountain itself.

That, indeed, was the continent’s most arid stretch of land, with not a living thing to be seen between the Citadel and the northern rim of the Golden Sea to the south. The windblown sands offered the possibility of no roads or tracks, and the ascent up the mountainside was steep and dangerous even before it reached the frighteningly slender staircase that ascended from the rim of the bowl, through an impossibly long stretch of open air to the suspended Citadel.

Residents of the Citadel on the Lee liked their privacy.

That wasn’t to say that they were disconnected from world events, as was evidenced by the conversation taking place on one of the structure’s upper terraces.

Three figures slowly paced the path ringing the garden there, bracketed between greenery on one side and a chest-high stone wall on the other, beyond which loomed a horrifying drop.

“With regard to the Empire, my scrying attempts have become effectively useless,” said the only woman in the group. She was human, and of very advanced age, her face deeply lined and with white hair hanging nearly to her knees, but she stood straight, moved smoothly and her eyes were sharp. “Modern countermeasures are simply too effective, and Imperial Intelligence has learned to use them quite…intelligently. Oracular divinations, of course, are much harder to shield against, but less reliable by nature, to say nothing of the difficulty of obtaining an actual oracle of any kind these days.” She sighed, a short sound of annoyance rather than resignation. “This all came to a head this week, when I received a very polite missive from Lord Quentin Vex, offering to cooperate with the Order’s information-gathering efforts.”

“That’d go against our neutrality,” rumbled one of her companions, a dwarf in light mail armor. “Not to mention it’s bad policy. The Empire itself being the thing most likely to be hiding information we seek, allowing them to direct our efforts…”

“You needn’t point any of that out to me, General,” the woman said, giving him an indulgent little smile before her expression sobered again. “Of most concern was the method. He had his letter translocated into my quarters, quite precisely onto my desk, despite the immense distances involved and my own wards. The letter was secondary; the message was that the Empire’s capabilities far outstrip ours, and to the extent that we watch them, it is because they choose to permit it.” She sighed again, pursing her lips. “My use as a tactical scryer appears to have reached its end. It is quite a thing, staring one’s obsolescence in the face.”

“Your magical skills have innumerable uses beyond intelligence gathering, Nandia,” said the third man firmly, “and you have inestimable value beyond magic.”

“Flatterer,” Nandia said with a smile, which he returned.

He towered over both of them and outshone them by far. Everything about the man’s aspect was gold, from his neatly-trimmed blonde hair to his tunic and trousers, and even the elaborate scalemail armor he wore over it. The material looked exactly like burnished gold, though such armor would have been far too heavy and far too soft to be in any way useful.

Most striking were his golden eyes: smooth, featureless orbs without pupils or irises, emitting a steady golden glow.

“We’ve been over this and over it,” the tall man in gold went on, frowning as he gazed abstractly out over the desert beyond their sheltered vertical crater. “For all these many years, in the Council’s meetings and in countless private talks like this one. The rise of the Tiraan Empire changes everything. One ascetic Order which eschews entanglement with terrestrial powers can be a beacon of the Light in a fractious world. So it has been for centuries. But sitting amidst the territory of a monolithic state… Perhaps Lord Vex’s message to Nandia revealed our salvation as much as our weakness.” He grimaced. “The Order cannot but stand against the Empire if it grows as corrupt as we fear it may. It may be our good fortune that we are too insignificant to be crushed.”

“Empires fall, Lord Ampophrenon,” said the dwarf, “without exception.”

“And should we just sit here in our mountain and wait for Tiraas to collapse?” the old woman asked sharply. “For however many centuries or millennia that takes? The Order is here to lend aid to the world where aid is needed, Oslin. You would go as mad as I, or any of us, passively watching it pass us by.”

“You have the measure of me as usual, Archmage,” the General said with a grin. His expression quickly sobered, though. “Can we afford to place our own wants above the greater good? The world has changed; the Order will need to adapt. We’ve always provided a sanctuary and safe haven here at the Citadel. Truly neutral ground is of service to the world in innumerable ways. Maybe…maybe it’s time to reduce our role to that. Even if it makes me and my rank completely superfluous.”

“If the question had a simple answer,” said Ampophrenon, “I rather think we’d have uncovered it before now. This need not be decided this day, by us. The Council continues to deliberate.”

“I’m not sure that’s correct, my Lord,” said Nandia with a thoughtful frown. “The Council would follow your edict if you cared to lay one down. If you are unsettled in your own mind on the subject… If we can help you to resolve an opinion, perhaps your leadership would give us exactly the sense of purpose we have lost over the years.”

“That, too, has its dangers,” he admonished gently. “The Order has always been led by a Council, with the Lords of the Citadel only directing operations where such direction is needed. This has been our strength, since long before I came along, and I hope to leave behind an Order pure to its own purpose rather than my will when I depart this world. In any case,” he went on more briskly, turning his back to the battlements to face them directly, “while the growth of Tiraas has inhibited our movement among human lands, the Empire is still not truly absolute, even on this continent. We have at least as much business in the dwarven kingdoms, and there are still the elves, the Punaji and the Tidestrider clans. Even the drow—”

A bell began tolling in the Citadel, followed in moments by others. All three of those on the terrace whirled, staring outward over the vista of desert.

“Light watch over us,” Nandia whispered.

A dragon was approaching the Citadel.

“Will you deal with him, m’Lord?” the General asked tersely. “Or shall I muster the regiment?”

“No,” Ampophrenon replied, staring fixedly at the serpentine blue figure as it banked and glided closer to the mountain. “This is not an attack. See how he tacks back and forth in that broad pattern? That is to show us he’s coming. A dragon could be from over the horizon to our walls before we could respond if he chose. In any case,” he added, frowning, “I know this one. I can’t imagine him attacking a fortified target under any circumstances. It seems he is simply…paying a visit.”

The Archmage and the General exchanged a look, then she cleared her throat and held out a hand, palm up. A glowing distortion appeared in the air above it. Oslin, nodding thanks to her, stepped over to speak directly into the light.

“Attention Citadel guards, this is General Skaalvyrd,” he said, his voice booming throughout the fortress. “The dragon is not hostile. Stand down high alert.” He glanced quickly up at Lord Ampophrenon, who was still closely watching the incoming blue. “Remain at defensive posts. Stand by mages and healers.”

Ampophrenon turned and nodded approvingly to him, then motioned them backward.

They began stepping back, retreating nearly the full width of the terrace and well into the garden proper, Nandia letting her magical effect vanish. The dragon banked once more, turning to fly directly toward the Citadel, close enough now that the beating of his enormous wings echoed off the walls of the half-hollowed mountain.

He dived toward the front of the Citadel and then swooped back upward, rising to hover for a looming instant directly in front of the upper terrace, wings fully outstretched. The sight was awe-inspiring; he was a massive, sinuously graceful creature, cobalt scales glittering in the sun like a sculpture of faceted sapphire. He began to plunge forward toward them, and Oslin reflexively jumped back. There was simply not room for a creature that size to land.

The dragon shrank as he fell, though, diminishing in seconds, so that it was a humanoid figure in lavish blue robes who landed nimbly on the battlements themselves, and executed a courtly bow to them before hopping down to the floor.

“Zanzayed,” said Ampophrenon, nodding gravely. “Hail, and be welcome. To what do we owe this…most unusual visit?”

“And hello to you, too, Puff!” Zanzayed the Blue said brightly, wearing a cheerful grin as he strode forward to join them.

“Here, now,” exclaimed the General. “That’s the Lord of the Citadel you’re speaking to. Show a little respect!”

“Don’t,” Nandia said quietly. “He likes to get a rise out of people. If you give him one, he’ll never quit.”

“Why, Archmage Nandia!” Zanzayed said smoothly. “You’re still alive? How lovely.”

Ampophrenon cleared his throat. “I’m certain you haven’t come all this way to socialize, cousin. It’s not like you to spend time in places such as this. We practice a simple way of life here.”

“Yes, as I can tell from your fabulous outfit,” said the blue. “You are correct, though, I’m here on business. With all respect to your little secret society, dragon business.”

“The Order of Light is hardly a secret,” Nandia said dryly.

“What can we do for you, then?” Ampophrenon asked.

Zanzayed looked pointedly at the human and the dwarf. “Dragon business, as I said. If we could speak privately…?”

“These are my closest friends,” said Ampophrenon calmly, “from whom I keep no secrets and upon whose counsel I rely. You may either speak in front of them or they can hear everything you have to say later, when I discuss the matter with them. I would prefer to limit the number of steps involved.”

Zanzayed pursed his lips in annoyance, then sighed. “Very well, if you insist. I’m afraid there’s a problem with Khadizroth.”

“Oh? Is he well?”

“That’s… Complex. Before we even get into where he is now, you’ll need to understand where he has been recently. You supposedly keep an eye on the world from your little clubhouse, yes? I trust you know what happened to the Cobalt Dawn tribe a couple of years back?”

“It was more than a couple,” Nandia said archly. “These piddly distinctions do matter to we mortals, Zanzayed. Yes, we are aware of these events.”

“’Twas a ruddy shame,” Oslin said solemnly, shaking his head. “I hate to see such loss of life among elves. So much eternity, wiped out so quickly… But it cannot be denied that the Dawn instigated that conflict. A state does have the right and the prerogative to defend its people.”

“Yes, well, what concerns us now is what happened immediately after that,” Zanzayed continued. “Khadizroth rounded up and hid the survivors, tending to the wounded and raising the young. There weren’t more than a couple dozen of them total, as I understand it.”

“That sounds quite commendable,” Ampophrenon noted.

“That’s because you’ve not heard the whole story,” Zanzayed replied, grimacing. “As I was told, Khadizroth’s plan to was to raise the females from childhood, ensuring they were loyal to him, and then use them to…breed.”

Ampophrenon frowned deeply. “Breed?”

“Breed dragons,” Zanzayed said grimly. “A whole…clutch? Drive? Flock? Do we even have a word for a family of dragons?”

“No,” said Ampophrenon flatly, “because the idea is absurd. This accusation is severe indeed, Zanzayed, most particularly because the deed you describe is dramatically out of character for Khadizroth.”

“Not if you consider his known motives and predilections,” Zanzayed countered. “It’s not as if he had a sudden attack of late-onset domesticity. The idea, Puff, was for him to have a force that could counter the Empire. You know how he feels about the Tiraan. Consider what he’d just seen them do to the Cobalt Dawn, coming not long on the heels of what happened to Elivathrined…”

“In both those events, the Empire was acting defensively,” Nandia noted.

“That’s beside the point,” Zanzayed said impatiently. “Think of what it means. This Empire has proved it can bring down a marauding dragon without taking significant losses, and crush a force of plains elves on the prairie, things we all thought were well beyond humanity’s grasp. Taken in the context of overall human progress and the Empire’s proven tendencies… Well. We all remember Athan’Khar. Khadizroth may be one of the nobler among us, but he is also a planner and a pragmatist. Is it really hard to believe he would cross a moral line if he truly thought it necessary?”

“What is the basis of this theory?” Ampophrenon asked, still frowning. “I trust you have evidence?”

“It was first brought to me by Arachne…”

Nandia snorted loudly, as she usually did when Tellwyrn was mentioned in her presence.

“That,” said Ampophrenon, “is a less than reliable source, considering the extreme nature of the accusation.”

“Hah!” Zanzayed grinned and folded his hands before him, making them vanish into his wide, embroidered sleeves. “I trust Arachne more than I trust you.”

“That just might be the single most asinine statement any sentient being has ever uttered,” said Nandia in a tone drier than the desert beyond.

“Arachne doesn’t deceive people,” Zanzayed replied, “because she’s too bullheaded, self-absorbed, and lazy to be bothered with what anyone thinks. Virtues have a way of crumbling if you apply just the right pressure to them; character flaws, however, are all but invincible. In any case, no, I didn’t just take her word for it, not being a complete idiot myself. Khadizroth’s plan allegedly collapsed when two of his would-be broodmares revolted and smuggled away their fellow refugees to hide them among several elven tribes. That left a verifiable trail; I’ve spent the last six weeks tracking them down and asking details. No easy task,” he added with a long-suffering sigh, “given how elves ward against scrying. I have my confirmation, however. I’ve spoken to several elves in four different tribal groups who confirm they were part of Khadizroth’s little…colony. And there were three other tribes who refused to speak with me, which itself is suggestive; elves don’t turn away a dragon without a very good reason. I only got through to talk with those who would see me when I assured them I was hunting for evidence on Khadizroth’s doings, not working with him.”

There was a pause while the three Citadel residents exchanged long looks.

“This is significant news indeed, then,” Ampophrenon said finally.

“It is a repulsive action on Khadizroth’s part, if it’s true,” Nandia agreed.

“And, dragon business or no, this is exactly the kind of thing the Order has a stake in,” added Oslin. “He could disrupt the whole balance of power on the continent if the Empire learned there was a dragon plotting to bring it down.”

“But you say the plot was stopped,” said Ampophrenon, turning back to Zanzayed. “Did you come here merely to carry tales of Khadizroth’s misdeeds?”

“If that were the end of it, I’d be glad enough to turn him over to you and wash my hands of the whole sordid business,” the blue dragon replied with a distasteful grimace. “It gets worse, however. The first point of interest is something Arachne did not know, which I learned from the elves: those two who turned on Khadizroth are eldei alai’shi.”

“Light above preserve us,” Nandia breathed in horror. “Two of them at once? How is it we’ve not heard of this?”

“That’s the scary part, isn’t it?” Zanzayed said lightly. “Hopefully they’re dead by now. If not, we’re dealing with the prospect of headhunters who have acquired new skills: working in teams, and laying low. Their inability to do such complex things in the past has been the only thing that’s brought them to an end.”

“You said the first point of interest,” said Ampophrenon. “Does it get worse yet?”

Zanzayed sighed. “Before I set off to investigate the elves, I managed to track down Khadizroth himself. Quite by coincidence, he was brought pretty close to where I happened to be at the time.”

“Brought?” Ampophrenon said sharply.

“Oh, yes.” Zanzayed’s tone was grim. “It seems he didn’t manage to keep his little endeavor fully under wraps. Someone sent a strike team after him, composed of several top adventurers, including a certain Mary the Crow. She managed to bind him into his lesser form; to the best of my knowledge, he’s still stuck that way.”

“A disturbing thought,” Ampophrenon said slowly. “However, under the circumstances I can’t find it in me to fly to his rescue. It sounds a fair enough penalty for his actions.”

Zanzayed held up a hand, jeweled rings glittering on his fingers. “I’ve not come to the bad part yet. In Khadizroth’s moment of weakness, he seems to have been recruited by the Universal Church. Archpope Justinian aims to use him as a weapon toward his own ends.”

There was a moment of stunned silence.

“Flamin’ Light in the sky,” Oslin said eventually.

“Well bloody put,” said Zanzayed with a grim smile. “Obviously, this is not acceptable. Justinian cannot be allowed to have a dragon on a leash, for just all kinds of reasons.”

“There are far too many holes in this,” said Ampophrenon. “You are certain about these details?”

“I’ve told you everything I’m sure about. As you say, there are obvious gaps in the narrative. We need more information before moving.”

“We?” Nandia demanded, raising her eyebrows.

Zanzayed sighed melodramatically. “Yes, I’m afraid even I am sufficiently disturbed by the implications of this to have put aside my own business to deal with it. If mortals get it into their heads that they can make dragons do their bidding… The mind boggles.”

“It is not the old days,” Ampophrenon warned. “It’s not as if we can swoop down on Tiraas and burn it do the ground for its temerity.”

“No, indeed,” Zanzayed nodded emphatically. “The world is changing; I’m afraid we have shamefully failed to keep up with it…most of us, anyway. This is going to call for a whole new way of doing things.”

“Whatever it is you intend,” said Ampophrenon, “there is the matter of Mary, if she is still involved. If, as you say, it was she who struck Khadizroth down, then the ancient respect owed her by our kind is in abeyance, at least with regard to him.”

“That’s what you’re concerned about?” Zanzayed demanded incredulously. “The Crow can take care of herself. And if not, she’s buttered her own bed this time, as you pointed out. We have far more serious concerns, Puff. I have a plan, or at least the broad strokes of one, if you’d care to hear it.”

“This should be good,” Nandia said wryly.

“Speak,” Ampophrenon commanded.

“Right. First of all, I’ll need your help to gather the aid of any of our brethren who may be willing to take part. For one thing, you know most of them better than I; you’ll know whom to approach, and in what way. Besides which,” he added with a disarming grin, “I’m afraid most of them wouldn’t take me very seriously. There’s a good reason I came to you first.”

“Yes,” Ampophrenon noted, raising an eyebrow, “remarkable the effect a few thousand years of determined frivolity can have on one’s reputation.”

“Yes, yes, laugh it up. Moving on to my second point… The fact is, we just don’t know how to handle this. As a race, we command such power that we lack the skill of being…subtle.”

“The Order is accustomed to acting carefully in the mortal world,” Oslin said proudly. “And we stand behind Lord Ampophrenon.”

“Ah, yes, the Order of Light,” said Zanzayed, moving his head in such a way it was obvious he was rolling his eyes, even despite their lack of visible pupils. “It’s been a hundred years since you were a significant factor in anyone’s calculations, and you know it. We need relevant and current skills and knowledge. We also need someone who can impart these skills to dragons. Luckily, there is a perfect prospect… One who I, rather than his Lordship here, should probably approach.”

Ampophrenon curled his lip disdainfully. “You surely do not propose to involve him.”

“I just did propose that,” Zanzayed said acidly, “and let’s call it what it is: you don’t have an actual objection to my plan, you just dislike him on a personal and philosophical level. Put that aside for a moment and think about what we’re dealing with, here. Razzavinax lives and works more closely with humans than any of us, anywhere. He knows their trends and current ways, and he is well accustomed to navigating among them without making unnecessary waves.”

“He is a sly conniver, you mean,” Ampophrenon said, glaring. “As is only to be expected, given the particular mortal company he keeps.”

“Puff,” Zanzayed said in exasperation, “a sly conniver is exactly what we need. Or do you have a better idea? Really, let’s hear it. You want to challenge the Archpope directly?”

The three stared at him in silence.

“Yeah, I didn’t think so,” he said smugly. “The two things we, even if we all combined, cannot face down are the Pantheon and now the Tiraan Empire. We’re in the ugly position of having to contend with both. This needs subtlety. It needs Razzavinax the Red.”

“You will never persuade me to trust him,” Ampophrenon said, folding his arms.

“And that’s another thing,” Zanzayed said relentlessly. “The very fact that you dislike him so much is why his voice will be essential in bringing the others to join us. There hasn’t been a silver or black dragon since Ilvassirnil and Semathlidon finally succeeded in ridding the world of each other. You two represent the farthest extremes of philosophy among the living dragons. If you both come together to do this, the others will have basically no choice but to join in and help.”

Ampophrenon shook his head slowly, then turned, facing his companions. “What say you on this, my friends?”

“He speaks reason,” Nandia said, somewhat grudgingly. “It is not a complete strategy, but it is a solid basis for one, and his arguments on all points have merit. If we are to take on this challenge—and I don’t see how we can morally let it pass—we may have to make certain…compromises in order to meet it. We should be careful, as we proceed, that those compromises are strategic and not ethical in nature.”

“I don’t like this,” Oslin murmured, “any part of it. But then… It’s not the sort of thing a sane person should like, is it? I agree with Nandia’s reasoning. My gut warns me to be mistrustful, however. Of a lot of things,” he added, giving Zanzayed a long look. The blue dragon grinned at him.

Ampophrenon drew in a deep breath and let it out as a sigh. “Very well. This merits further discussion, but I fear we cannot afford to tarry. At the least, the Council must be informed before we proceed further. Zanzayed, will be you stay here as our guest while we attend to these details?”

“If that’s what it takes” Zanzayed replied, glancing around somewhat disparagingly. The view from the Citadel on the Lee was absolutely magnificent, awe-inspiring in all directions. The architecture and trappings of the Citadel itself, however, were notably spartan. “Let’s not make it too long, however. Urgent matters, you know. What sort of wine do you serve around here? How friendly are the girls?”

“Well,” Nandia noted wryly, “it seems our fears of fading into obscurity, at least, are delayed.”

Ampophrenon the Gold sighed again. “And thus does the Light remind us to be careful what we wish for.”

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5 – 31

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Mercifully, the sun was finally slipping toward the sea in the west, but it was still more than warm on the rocky plains outside Onkawa. He trudged along through the scraggly bushes and lone patches of stubborn tallgrass, coat thrown over his shoulder and only a pilfered straw hat to protect him from the rays. At least he was alone. The distant city had been built on the cliffs above the sea, along the tributaries of the river, deriving scant resources from its rocky environs. Onkawa’s livelihood was trade and fishing; no one attempted to use this land for anything else.

Shook stopped as he came to an old dirt road running north to south, looking warily up and down it. Beyond that lay the mountains toward which he was headed; this was the first sign of civilization he had encountered since fleeing the city, and anxious as he was to avoid anyone who might be pursuing him, it brought him up short. Still, the road was empty. There was no other sign of life except for an enormous monitor lizard sprawled on a nearby outcropping of rock, still soaking up the heat trapped in the stone even after the sun had faded away.

The creature half turned its head toward him and flicked its tongue out, tasting the air. It looked to be nearly as long as he was tall.

“Don’t even fucking think about it,” Shook growled, reaching for a wand with the hand not holding up his coat.

The monitor flicked its tongue again, blinking both sets of eyelids.

He was contemplating shooting it on general principles when movement from the corner of his eye caught his attention. Shook swiftly sidestepped, repositioning himself to keep both the lizard (probably harmless, but he was well past the point of making assumptions) and the approaching figure in view. As the airborne dot grew close enough to become more distinct, however, he relaxed slightly.

Kheshiri swooped down and came to a graceful landing a few feet away, beating her wings once to slow her momentum. The quick breeze it caused was extremely welcome, even if it did knock his hat off. It was a stupid hat anyway.

“Master,” she said, looking tense but relieved. “I was worried. Did you get use out of the supplies I—”

“I have spent the whole goddamn day plodding across this goddamn desert, and I’m not dead of dehydration or heatstroke. Yes, I made good use of the supplies; the potions should be enough to last us till the mountains, if you’re sure you don’t need any.”

She shook her head, watching him warily. His voice was a subdued monotone, and contained an uncharacteristic lack of threats and bluster. “I don’t have many physical needs. I’m just glad you didn’t get chased down. I didn’t want to leave—”

“What’d you find out?” he asked curtly.

Kheshiri pursed her lips, then sighed. “It’s not good, master. Saduko lived. Vandro’s calling in special healers to make sure she has a full recovery. Amanika’s fine, and apparently on a fast track to heading up the local Guild chapter house. Vandro is upgrading his security system.”

He just nodded. His expression was blank, exhausted; there was something empty in his eyes.

Kheshiri sidled closer, lower her voice to a gentle murmur. “We’re gonna be fine, master. You’re smart and tough as hell, and you’ve got me. We’ll get them all for this, I promise.” She tried to cuddle up under his arm, but he pushed her away, not nearly as roughly as he usually did.

“Took you that many hours to find that much out?”

“Most of it was travel time,” the succubus said, suppressing irritation. “And…I saw an opportunity to take Vandro out of the picture, so I went for it. It…didn’t pan out.”

He glared. “You tried to… Goddamn it, you stupid wench, he has a Butler. The man is never out of earshot. It’s a miracle you aren’t dead! It’d serve you right, doing a stupid thing like that.”

“Yes, he has a Butler,” she said in exasperation. “A servant! How was I supposed to know he’s some kind of martial arts genius?”

“It’s a fucking Butler!” Shook shouted. “How can you not know what a Butler is?!”

“How would I?” she shot back. “Last time I was on this plane of existence, a butler was a guy in a suit who served tea and looked fancy! Maybe I could be more useful to you if you’d explain these things instead of making fun of me!”

She broke off, breathing heavily. Shook just stared at her. Any moment now would come the tirade, possibly with a punch in the jaw for emphasis.

Any moment.

He sighed and turned away. “Ask questions, Kheshiri. We were in that house plenty long enough for you to start wondering. You don’t understand something, you ask.”

“Yes, master,” she said meekly. While his back was turned, she permitted herself a fleeting expression of gleeful triumphant. Oh, he was all but broken. Clay to be reshaped. “I’m…sorry, master,” she added hesitantly. “I messed that whole thing up. I smelled a rat from the beginning, but… I thought it was Amanika who’d turn on us. Vandro took me by complete surprise. Luckily my precautions were of some use.”

He opened his mouth to reply, then turned his head sharply, looking up the road. A carriage was trundling along the dirt track in their direction. Shook swiftly peered around them, shoulders tensing.

“No cover,” Kheshiri said tersely, shifting silently into her local girl appearance. “It’s okay. We’re just two people out…”

“For a romantic stroll through the howling goddamn wilderness at sunset?” He gave her a disparaging look.

“…we can play the lost travelers angle, maybe bum a ride?”

“Look at that old jalopy, Kheshiri,” he said, staring at it. “Needs painting, broken head lamp…scruffy and busted.”

“I don’t think we’re in a position to be picky, master…”

“Shut up. Look at it, but listen to it. Damn near silent. That’s not some farmer’s raggedy-ass old carriage, it’s a well-maintained modern rig running the best Falconer enchantments, made up to look like a farmer’s old carriage.”

He really wasn’t stupid. Fantastically dense on certain subjects, emotional and easily manipulated, sure, but once in a while he’d abruptly remind her that he was fully trained by the Thieves’ Guild.

“Think they’re here after us?”

“Be ready for a fight,” he said as the carriage drew close. “Maybe they’re passing by on the way to some other… Oh, god damn it. Why should we get any luck?” he added in a growl as the vehicle began to slow and then pulled over to the opposite side of the road. This close, they could see that it was driven by an elf in traditional forest attire, with the addition of a pair of tinted goggles protecting his eyes from road dust.

“Shift back,” Shook said quietly.

“Master, I—”

“We’re past the point of pretenses, here. Let’s make ’em think carefully about whether they wanna fuck with us.”

“Yes, master,” she said grimly, fading back to her true form and stretching her wings menacingly. They weren’t all that useful in a fight, but they made for fantastic dramatic effect. The monitor lizard, apparently unimpressed by the carriage, recognized a traditional “puffing up” display and shifted a few feet away from them on its rock, tasting the air again.

“Now, now, there’s no need for that,” said a voice from within the carriage, and another elf emerged, stepping down into the road. He wore a pinstriped suit and an obnoxious grin. “We come in peace! I have a business proposal, if you’d like to put down those—”

Shook fired a bolt of white light into the ground right in front of his feet, cutting him off.

“I have exactly no patience for whatever bullshit this is,” he growled. “Next thing you say had better be a damn good reason for me not to shoot your ass.”

“Okay,” the elf said, his smile widening. “I’m the Jackal.”

Shook eyed him up and down. “Bullshit.”

“What’s a jackal?” Kheshiri stage-whispered.

“Look at it this way,” the elf said brightly. “I’m either the Jackal or some idiot who’s going to get killed for walking around using his professional moniker. Which do you think is more likely to intercept you on a deserted road in Buttfuck, Onkawa Province?”

“…god damn it, I hate today,” Shook muttered. “That sounds like a pretty good reason to shoot you, frankly.”

“You’d have done it if you were going to,” the Jackal said merrily. “Still could, but… I’ll tell you up front, others have made that mistake. None twice, though.”

“Who is this guy?” Kheshiri demanded, an edge to her voice.

“An assassin,” Shook said curtly.

“Oh, good,” she purred, waving her tail languidly behind her. “I love killing assassins. They appreciate the irony so much better than average shmoes.”

The Jackal laughed. “And this must be the charming Miss Kheshiri! Delighted, my dear, simply delighted. Driving our humble conveyance is my good friend Vannae, and allow me to introduce your other new friend…”

Out of the shadows of the carriage’s interior stepped another elf, this one with flowing green hair, a thin strip of beard… And eyes like luminous, smooth-cut emeralds.

“Khadizroth the Green,” finished the Jackal.

“I hate my life,” Shook corrected himself.

Khadizroth studied him over, then directed a distinctly contemptuous look at Kheshiri before turning to the Jackal. “These are the people with whom you insisted on meeting? Very well. I am patient, but not infinitely. Speak your piece, please.”

“Right then!” the Jackal said with relish, rubbing his hands together. “Quite so, quite so, you’ve been more than patient. I have brought us all together to present a fairly simple opportunity.” He spread his arms, smiling like a salesman. “How’d you all like to work for the Archpope of the Universal Church?”

In the silence that followed, the monitor tasted the air again.

“I think he’s making fun of us,” Kheshiri said, sounding offended. “Let’s kill him.”

“Now, hear me out,” the Jackal said, laughing again. “Archpope Justinian has embarked on a bold new project to rally the world’s remaining adventurers under his own thumb. Eventually, the plan is to have what amounts to a Church-controlled army of people very talented in the fine art of causing destruction.”

“First of all, adventurers are washed-up losers,” said Shook.

“Commonly, yeah,” the Jackal replied cheerfully. “I’m referring to the couple dozen or so individuals who aren’t. And, not coincidentally, don’t call themselves—ourselves—adventurers in this day and age. But the reality is the same. Three hundred years ago, we’d have been wandering, campaigning, dungeon-looting heroes, all of us.”

“Not all,” Khadizroth said quietly. “Some of us would have been targets of the rest.”

“Okay, leaving all that aside,” Shook snapped, “this is the dumbest fucking idea I’ve ever heard.”

“You are young,” the dragon said dryly.

“More to the point, this is not something I think I like the idea of the Archpope doing. So no, you can count me the fuck out.”

“Oh, honestly, Thumper, do you think I want him doing this?” the Jackal asked condescendingly. “It’d be an unmitigated disaster. Nobody needs to have power of that kind, and if anybody does, it’s definitely not the Church. Gods, no, this has to be prevented at all bloody costs.”

“And yet, you’re recruiting for him?” Shook demanded.

“That’s right.” The Jackal tucked his thumbs into his belt and rocked back on his heels, grinning broadly. “I am.”

“What the fuck—”

“It’s because he doesn’t think he can kill Justinian,” Kheshiri said quietly.

The Jackal pointed a finger at her. “Bingo!”

Shook narrowed his eyes. “What?”

“Killing the Archpope is the most logical solution to this…problem,” the succubus continued, studying the assassin through narrowed eyes. “Failing that… To oppose him directly would be suicide. The Church probably has more resources than the Empire, considering it’s stretched across the whole planet. The only workable strategy for stopping this is to go along with it. Earn trust, get placed close to Justinian, then watch for or create an opportunity to sabotage it.”

“Hm,” Khadizroth said thoughtfully.

“The lady is dead on, and proving that I was right in picking you two,” the elf said, still as cheerful as if discussing the sunny weather. “I am, to be quite honest, the best there is at what I do, and I will tell you that killing a sitting Archpope is simply not in the cards. There are limits to what Justinian can do with his power, but the gods are watching over him. I don’t mean that as the passe benediction it usually is; the actual gods keep their actual eyes on him, at least to the point of protecting him from harm. It’s part of the pact that led to the Church’s formation. No, he’s here to stay. All that’s left to do is to unwork his plans before he can complete them.”

“And you chose us?” Shook looked expressively around at the little group. “You’ve got interesting taste.”

“He’s completely insane, is what,” Kheshiri said disdainfully. “I am, in case it slipped your notice, a demon. Me going near the Church is a death sentence.”

“It might interest you to know,” the Jackal replied with a sunny smile, “that while I proposed this roster of talents, each of you was personally approved by His Holiness.” He paused, letting that sink in for a moment. “Justinian is a very forward-thinking chap.”

“Indeed, this new Archpope seems quite permissive,” Khadizroth noted, “considering we were brought here by a Black Wreath shadow-jumping talisman.”

“The skills represented by this group are plenty impressive enough to warrant recruitment,” the Jackal declaimed. “There’s me, of course, and Khadizroth here is… Well, I’m sure I don’t have to delve into his resume to impress you. Kheshiri is a noted conniver and corrupter even by succubus standards, and our boy Thumper is a veteran of security at the central office of the Thieves’ Guild. He’s the lad they send to break kneecaps when the kneecaps in question are attached to someone most people don’t want to mess with.”

“What’s his story?” Shook asked, nodding at the elf perched in the driver’s seat.

“Oh, he comes with the dragon,” the Jackal said offhandedly. Vannae tightened his mouth, but remained silent. “Even better, each of us has a hook. Justinian likes to deal with people he can control—or thinks he can. Kheshiri is bound to a kind of soul jar. Shook is currently on the outs and on the run from his own Guild. Khadizroth has been placed under a curse that severely limits his options, magically speaking. And me, well, I’ve spent the last couple of years laboriously building up the impression for Justinian’s sake that he has me on a leash. So that’s why he approves the lot of you for his venture. What’s far more interesting is what’s in it for us.”

“Go on,” Khadizroth prompted.

“We four displaced villains have enemies in common,” the Jackal continued, his smile turning grim. “There’s Justinian’s own scheme, of course, but we’ve all suffered from the attentions of one man: Bishop Antonio Darling.”

“Wait just a goddamn minute,” Shook said. “I have no quarrel with Sweet. He’s always been straight with me. Helpful, even.”

“Oh, Thumper, open your eyes,” the assassin said disdainfully. “Think about what’s happened to you. You had one little difference of opinion with an errant member of your Guild, which stemmed from you being sent by them to bring her to heel because she was out of line. Next thing you know, you’re wanted and on the run, and Principia is welcomed back with open arms. Do you even know why?”

“How do you know about any of that?” Shook demanded.

“Oh, I have my ways; that’s not important. What matters is that Darling was the one who sent Principia to Last Rock in the first place. As I understand it, you were sent by the Boss of the Guild to take her to task and she turned outright traitor, yes? Then the Boss sent you out again to drag her back.” He smirked. “Next thing you knew, the Guild wanted your ass on a platter. What you don’t know is what happened in between, in Tiraas. Someone with the power to lean on the Boss of the Guild, and with a pre-existing tendency to favor Principia, stuck his fingers in. Do the bloody math, Thumper.”

Shook had slowly stiffened as the elf spoke, and by this point had clenched his fists so hard around his wands that they vibrated. His expression was a portrait of barely-held control.

“And so, here we are,” the Jackal continued. “United in threefold purpose: We need to cozy up to Archpope Justinian to undercut his plans, we need to find ways to dismantle the various shackles placed upon each of us, and we most especially need to administer some long-overdue comeuppance to Antonio Darling and his various lackeys. As a professional courtesy to one another, I think we can find time to deal with the two friends of his who have caused us the most grief: Mary the Crow and Principia Locke.”

“And what’s to stop you from stabbing us in the back?” Shook asked tightly. “You’re not exactly a trustworthy figure, and I note this whole damn thing is your idea.”

“Alternatively,” Khadizroth suggested, “Any of us could turn on you. Or each other. I see little, if any, cause for trust here.”

“Okay, let’s think that through,” the Jackal suggested brightly. “Say you gang up, kill me and run back to Justinian with the story of how I was setting up a scheme against him. Curry a little favor, remove some competition, right? Then whoever was left would be in exactly the same position: needing to secure their freedom and revenge, and with one less ally.” He shook his head, still smiling. “It just doesn’t make any sense. We’re all professionals, and we all know where our best interests lie; in this case, that’ll suffice in place of genuine trust between us. Hell, I’d venture to say it’s the closest thing to real trust anybody ever gets in this life.”

Another silence fell; the thief, the demon and the dragon regarded each other speculatively.

“I’ve gotten us started with a little good-faith effort,” the Jackal continued smoothly. “I recently helped our buddy Khadizroth here out of a jam caused by Darling’s little hit squad. Interestingly enough, Darling is officially in charge of the Church’s adventurer recruitment program, but Justinian apparently doesn’t trust him completely. Can’t imagine why, heh. So I was dispatched with orders not to let it be known who I was, since Darling and the Crow both know who I work for.” He smirked smugly. “I may have failed to execute that as carefully as I might. By which I mean, I made damn sure two of the would-be dragonslayers got a good look at me.”

“How in the hell is that a good faith effort?” Shook growled. “That’s helping Darling.”

“Sure is,” the Jackal said cheerily. “Specifically, it’s helping him see who his real enemy is: Archpope Justinian. It’s helping to place our two groups of enemies at each other’s throats. Let them wear one another down with schemes and counterschemes while we position ourselves. By the time they’re done with that, whoever’s left over will be ripe for the picking.”

“I find this entire affair distasteful, for countless reasons,” Khadizroth said, frowning. “…however, your logic is compelling.”

Shook nodded slowly.

“I don’t trust this, master,” Kheshiri said tersely.

“Good,” Shook replied. “You’d be a fool to. But…the enemy of my enemy.”

“That never works out in the long run.”

“Oh, I’m making no promises about the long run,” said the Jackal with a grin. “Right now, we’re at the point of making sure there is a long run for any of us. We are each other’s best bet of doing so.”

“I will join you,” Khadizroth said solemnly.

Shook sighed. “Hell with it. We’re in. Not like we have any better options.” Kheshiri lashed her tail furiously, but kept silent.

“Excellent,” the Jackal purred. “Pile in, then, my friends, and let’s get out of this dump. We could all do with some rest and a good meal. And in some cases, a bath.”

Full dark fell as the carriage, loaded with its new passengers, whirred smoothly off on its way down the road. The monitor lizard watched it go, flicking out its tongue to sense the air. It made no reaction to the departing carriage, nor to the disturbance that developed in the air nearby once the vehicle was nearly out of sight.

The air shifted, twisted and rippled, as though reality itself were putty being stretched and mashed in a child’s hands. Out of the distortion stepped a stately figure in absurdly ornate blue robes, allowing the illusion effect to fade behind him.

“Now, you see that?” Zanzayed the Blue asked the monitor. “I swear, every time I see him, Khadizroth has minions. He doesn’t even try. He’s just always got some bloody mortal to fetch and carry for him, even while he’s apparently cursed, blackmailed and guilty of a ridiculously villainous plot to overthrow the Empire through organized miscegenation. It’s just not fair.”

He sighed moodily. “Now, if I had minions to talk to instead of you, little cousin, I could get some real feedback here. They’d say, ‘Zanza,’—they’d call me Zanza, I run a pretty loose hypothetical ship—’Zanza,’ they’d say, ‘you’ve tried to keep mortal followers too, and you always lose interest after a few years and forget about them. Remember the time you left four girls in a tower and forgot to feed them for thirty years? That was just gruesome, that was.’ And I’d have to shrug bashfully and admit they’re right.” He huffed in annoyance. “Of course, the alternative is this thing right here, where I’m standing alone in the wilderness talking to myself. Maybe I should give it another try. Whatever, I blame Khadizroth. Thanks to him and his idiocy, now I have to go do actual work. Bah.”

In the falling darkness, he shifted, swelling, his luminous blue eyes rising skyward, first with the revelation of his greater form, and then as he beat his massive wings and took off.

The lizard, unimpressed by travelers, carriages, impromptu conferences and dramatic magical effects, was nonetheless very impressed by finding itself in the company of the ultimate apex predator. It whirled and scuttled away with astonishing speed.

Zanzayed, though, was already halfway toward the mountains, paying it no more mind.


Captain Ravoud couldn’t help being awed. He had been to the Grand Cathedral, of course, but never beyond the public spaces dedicated to worship. Its inner halls were stately, opulent, almost perfectly designed to make him feel glaringly out of place in his stark uniform.

The soldiers of the Holy Legion who escorted him only added to the effect. Resplendent with their decorative armor and elaborate polearms, they were stern and aloof, more rigid in their bearing than the Imperial soldiers whose company he was used to. Even Ravoud’s certainty that his troops would vastly overmatch this lot in any real action did nothing to assuage the intimidation he felt. These were an honor guard, a ceremonial unit. They existed for psychological effect. It was no more than natural that he felt it in their presence, or so he told himself.

It was almost a shock when they came to what was apparently the right door; it had begun to seem he would wander this extravagant maze forever, as if trapped in a dream. His escorts, however, smoothly shifted formation (with needless but well-choreographed stomping that made their armor clank in unison), two of them moving to flank the polished oak door. One knocked.

“Enter,” said a slightly muffled voice from within. The guard turned the knob, stepped aside and saluted Ravoud. The captain returned the salute (the other man did it wrong) and stepped through. The door was pulled shut behind him, separating him from his erstwhile guards.

This space was smaller, and impressively managed to seem somewhat cozy, despite being made of the same carved white marble as the rest of the Cathedral, illuminated by towering stained glass windows as well as modern fairy lamps. The furnishings were of very dark-stained wood, bookcases laden with old leatherbound volumes, overstuffed armchairs upholstered in deep burgundy, small cabinets and stands scattered in a profusion that seemed almost cluttered. A comfortable fire labored against the winter chill in an ostentatious hearth on the far wall. The whole effect conspired to seem comfortable, habitable, offsetting the grandeur of the office itself.

Ravoud gave it all scarcely a glance, immediately falling to one knee as the Archpope of the Universal Church himself approached him.

“Your Holiness,” he murmured, kissing the proffered ring.

“Captain Ravoud,” Justinian said with a beatific smile, and withdrew his hand. “Thank you for joining me so swiftly. Rise, my son.”

He obeyed slowly. “I…was surprised by your summons, your Holiness. I confess I’m not at all sure what it is I can do for you…”

“Well, we can discuss that presently,” said he Archpope, turning to face the far end of the long office, near the fire. “First, there is someone where whom I think you should meet.”

Ravoud turned, and instantly froze, the blood draining from his face.

She stood in front of an armchair, an afghan sprawled on the floor beside her where it had clearly fallen from her lap when she abruptly rose. She was thinner than he remembered, her hair longer, but there could be no mistaking that face. It had haunted his dreams long enough.

“Alia?” he whispered.

“Nassir?” he little sister replied hesitantly, stepping convulsively forward once, then stopping as if unsure of herself.

“Alia!” he cried, completely forgetting the exalted company in which he stood and rushing forward. She ran to meet him, bursting into tears, and in the next moment she was in his arms. She wept—they both wept, rocking slowly, wrapped around each other.

“I thought you were lost forever,” he whispered finally, when enough of his breath and mental faculties recovered to form words. “I was… I tried, Alia, I tried so hard to reach you, but they blocked me at every turn. I was so close to giving up…”

“I missed you,” she sniffled, nuzzling at his shoulder. “Oh, gods, Nassir, you have no idea. I thought if I could just see you again…”

“Have you seen Papa yet? Oh, Alia, he hasn’t been the same since we lost you.”

“Not yet, I’ve only been here in the Cathedral.” She drew back slightly to smile up at him. “Papa’s still okay?”

“He will be now,” Ravoud promised, cupping her face in his hands.

“Thank the gods,” she said, tears still brimming in her eyes. “It’ll be so good to see him before I go back.”

He froze. “…go back?”

“I’m not supposed to be out,” she said, suddenly nervous. “I’m going to be in so much trouble…”

“Alia, that’s all over,” he soothed. “You’re safe now, in Tiraas. We’re not going to let any drow get to you.”

She was shaking her head before he even finished. “You don’t understand… It’s not my place, Nassir. I know where I belong. Mistress is going to be so disappointed… I’ve got to make it all right, I didn’t want to come, but they made me…”

“Alia, what are you talking about?” he demanded, his blood chilling.

“This has been an extremely trying time for all of us,” the Archpope said smoothly, stepping up next to them. “We must take the time to discuss these matters fully; it needn’t all be done tonight. Miss Ravoud, of course you should reconnect with your family. Your mistress will understand a brief delay.”

“I…” She bit her lip, glancing between Justinian and Nassir. “I guess… I don’t have permission, is what worries me…”

“All will be well,” the Archpope promised, smiling gently at her. “You are very tired, I know; it’s been a long day. I need to have a few words with your brother, my dear, and then you two will have all the time you need to talk. Branwen, would you kindly take Miss Ravoud into the sitting room and see that she’s comfortable? I’ll send the Captain in momentarily to join her.”

“Of course, your Holiness,” said a new voice, and Ravoud only then realized there was another woman present. It was a testament to the distractions occurring that he hadn’t; she was exactly the kind of woman he usually spotted right off. Short, yes, but pretty, curvy, and with striking hair of a deep red. She smiled warmly, taking Alia by the hand and gently pulling her away. “Come along, honey, let’s let your brother deal with his business as quickly as possible, so you two have all the time you need to talk.”

“All right,” Alia said, reluctantly letting herself be drawn away. “Don’t take too long, though, Nassir? I really want to talk with you, and, and, I can’t be gone too much longer.”

He only managed to nod, trying for a smile. A lump of congealed horror in his throat blocked all efforts at speech.

“Oh, but maybe you can meet mistress!” she said brightly, her face lighting up at the idea. “I just know you’ll love her. Everyone loves her.”

He couldn’t even nod. Alia didn’t seem to notice. She let Branwen escort her to a side door near the fireplace, and then through.

The moment it clicked shut, he rounded on the Archpope.

“What is wrong with her?! A spell?”

Justinian shook his head, his expression grave. “Narisian drow do not waste energy on such effects when more mundane methods will do. The crude term is ‘brainwashing.’ There is a hidden compliment to your sister in this; she would not have been so dramatically…worked upon, were she not unusually resistant to them in the first place. The mind, Captain, is always growing, ever adapting. The essence of the technique, as I understand it, is to introduce the subject to sufficiently severe trauma that they are forced to adapt new ways of thinking to survive, and then guide that adaptation in directions that serve your purposes.”

Ravoud was barely conscious of being ushered over to a large desk and gently pushed into a chair in front of it. He bit his fist, gazing emptily into the distance in shock. “Can… You can undo it?”

“There is no going back, I’m afraid. Only forward. That is how the mind works, Captain; you cannot change what has been done.” Justinian placed a glass of brandy on the desk in front of Ravoud, who hadn’t even seen him pour it. He went on more gently, a calm smile wreathing his face. “But we will put her right. It will be many times easier than having so distorted her in the first place. She already knows how to be a free, independent person, and has memories of the habits and patterns that will enable her to do so. It is simply a matter of bringing them back to the forefront, giving her time to heal, and to forget the behavior modifications that were forced upon her. It is a process, Captain; you must understand this. There is no magic incantation. It will take time and expert guidance. Luckily, we have the best. A man named Orthilon, once a Narisian slave trainer and now a resident of Lor’naris. There is no better expert on their methods.”

“More drow,” Ravoud said bitterly, closing his hand around the glass. He didn’t lift it to his mouth.

“Some disdain to use the tools and weapons of the enemy,” Justinian said mildly. “Personally, I find there is no more elegant victory for the righteous than to unmake the wicked upon their own depravities. Orthilon is trustworthy and diligent; I will personally vouch for your sister’s care. I am also,” he continued, turning and pacing over to gaze out the window at the arcane-lit city, “working to extract Tamra Faroud, who I understand was engaged to your late friend Corporal Khalivour. This is taking time and substantial energy, but I am confident it will be done. Unfortunately, so doing will expend the last of my resources in Tar’naris; I likely will not be able to rescue any more of the enslaved unfortunates there. The drow city is in the grip of a pagan goddess. It is possibly the place where my influence is thinnest.”

Ravoud swallowed the lump in his throat. “I… I can never thank you enough, your Holiness. What have I done to deserve this favor?”

Justinian turned to face him, his expression calm, thoughtful. “Let me ask you a question in return, Captain. What do you think of my Holy Legion?”

Ravoud carefully removed his fingers from the glass of untouched brandy. “They are…very impressive, your Holiness. Very dramatic. Stylish.”

“Anyone could tell me that,” Justinian said with a faint smile. “I am asking you not as a casual observer, but as a military man.” When Ravoud hesitated, he added more gently, “I beg you to speak honestly, Captain. I can assure you that nothing you have to say will offend me.”

“Well,” Ravoud said slowly. “From a strictly military standpoint… I don’t see any use for them. At all. Almost no one fights with armor and bladed weapons anymore, and of those who do… Honestly, those men wouldn’t stand a chance against the Silver Legions. I just… Your Holiness, I assumed they were meant to be strictly ceremonial. You can’t send those men against any significant threat. They’d be slaughtered.”

He trailed off, afraid he’d gone too far, but the Archpope only smiled warmly. “You have the right of it, Captain. I fear I had to engage in distasteful maneuvering and expend a great deal of political capital to gain authorization for the Church to build a military force within the Empire’s borders. Making that force an obviously ceremonial token army with little practical value has been a necessary step in soothing the feathers that were ruffled in this process.”

Justinian folded his arms behind his back, his expression growing distant. “The world, alas, is not so blessedly simple as to let me carry on in such a fashion. The fate of your sister is an example of a persistent problem the Empire faces: all too often, the Emperor is constrained by politics and unable to act…or perhaps, simply lacks the will to do so. I would not presume to judge his heart; I can only analyze his actions. Then, more recently, events in Lor’naris have reaffirmed the concerns which prompted me to form the Holy Legion in the first place. The shadowy forces at work in that debacle prove the need for the Church to strike directly against evil when it arises. It is a capacity we must develop.”

“Are you… Your Holiness, have you managed to learn anything about the people who were trying to organize that uprising? The Army’s investigation hit an immediate wall.”

“Suffice it to say, Captain, that you will hear no more from the individuals responsible,” the Archpope said with a smile. “I can assure you of that personally. I do, you see, have some ability to act where needed. As these events prove, however, more direct and forceful action is often necessary. You may not have heard of it yet, but the Black Wreath is rising, the fae in the wild places are growing restless, and in all corners of the world are whispers that a great doom is coming. Where the Empire cannot or will not act, the Church must. And to that end… While those who would oppose us are calmed by my extremely pretty, entirely useless guards, I have a mind to put together a smaller but considerably more effective force to act on my behalf.” He paused, studying Ravoud thoughtfully. “I will need someone to lead it. Someone trained in modern military tactics, experienced in leading men… And, while loyal to our Empire, someone very personally aware that governments cannot always be counted on to act where action is necessary. The more I learn of you, Captain Ravoud, the more I begin to think I have found that man. I understand you have been offered the chance to resign your commission in the Imperial Army due to the recent events in Lor’naris. While this may have seemed a punishment to you at the time… Often, the gods have a greater plan for us.”

Ravoud barely waited for him to finish speaking. He practically lunged up from his chair, starting at the Archpope and nearly trembling with fervor as he replied.

“Your Holiness, I am your man. To the death.”

Justinian smiled kindly, reached out and squeezed his shoulder.

“I know.”


The Imperial Rail station in Tiraas never truly closed. Despite the end of standard running hours, there was often a need for various persons on Imperial or other urgent business to charter private caravans. One of these was just now departing a platform, laden with agents of Imperial Intelligence on some clandestine night mission. In the relatively quiet hours of the night, though the doors remained open and the lights on, the station was protected from loiterers, vagrants and vandals by a light but steady presence of soldiers.

By and large, they let people be. Various night owls wandered through the station on no particular business; it was also a popular spot for all sorts of assignations, being clean, well-lit and safe. By the very nature of the traits that made it attractive, the Rail station was not prone to hosting any gatherings that were illicit or illegal, so the soldiers patrolling its platforms rarely interfered with anyone who did not give them specific cause.

The guards certainly didn’t bother three men in Imperial Army uniforms, standing on a platform next to a station trolley loaded with an assortment of backpacks and small satchels, rather like the light luggage of maybe a dozen people or less. After the men had been there for well over an hour, though, just standing, one of the guards finally approached them.

“Evenin’, lads,” he greeted his fellow soldiers, finally getting close enough to note their faces. One looked amused, one furious, the third merely perplexed. “Need any help?”

“Brother,” said Rook with a grin, “you have no idea.”

“They can’t possibly have just forgotten us!” Moriarty burst out.

Finchley sighed heavily, turning to the mystified station guard. “Do you happen to know if there’s a telescroll office open this late?”

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