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Home.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Darling blinked. “Uh.”

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

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

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

“What did happen?” Darling asked.

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

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

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

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

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

“Is it?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yet.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Heel, girl.”

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Shadows passed over him.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Zanzayed snorted; Ampophrenon and Varsinostro exchanged an unreadable glance.

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

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

“Anymore?” the blue repeated curiously.

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

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

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

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

“Not remotely,” the red replied.

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

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

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

“As are we all,” Ampophrenon said firmly.

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

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

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

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9 – 37

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Some more than others,” Merry said coldly.

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

“Oh, obviously,” Principia said wryly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Elwick, enough,” Principia said quietly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Zanzayed,” Ampophrenon said reprovingly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Answer her, Sergeant.”

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

“Mm,” Taghaved said noncommittally.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes, ma’am.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Deafening silence weighed on the room.

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

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

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

Principia remained silent.

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

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

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

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

“Enough, Captain,” General Tagheved said.

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

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

“Understood, ma’am.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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“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 – 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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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 – 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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