Tag Archives: Maiyenn

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

“A what?” Trissiny asked distractedly.

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

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

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

“I would never!” Juniper exclaimed in horror.

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

Trissiny had stopped and turned to stare incredulously at Shaeine.

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

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

“Thanks, Fross,” Toby said resignedly.

“No problem!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She paused, staring at the students.

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

“Hello,” said Schkhurrankh.

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

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

“Oh. Right.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Hello,” she said sheepishly.

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

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

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

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

Schkhurrankh—Scorn—grinned again. “Hello!”

“Vrackdish khnavai?” Teal asked.

Scorn blinked at her twice, then began snickering.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hello!” Scorn said brightly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I live to serve!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“If fher a profful?” she inquired.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Uh, what?” Juniper asked. “Who is?”

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

“Uh,” said Fross.

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Sergeant,” she said caustically.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Older,” he said idly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hmf. How long’s that take?”

“How long did it take you?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There were several chuckles at this.

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

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

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

“Did you just tell me to—”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That’s disgusting!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Which is?”

He smiled. “We must think like mortals.”

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

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

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

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

Silence held.

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

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

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

“Definitely beneath us,” the red grinned.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A thoughtful quiet answered him.

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

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

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6 – 18

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Does Ampophrenon know you still call him that?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“All of them?” Zanzayed asked faintly.

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

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

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

“Are you in, then?”

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

“Smashing!” Zanza grinned broadly.

“I’m coming with you,” Maiyenn said firmly. “Don’t even try to argue.”

“My dear one,” Razzavinax murmured, lifting her hand to his lips, “why would you think I would permit anything else? I believe we can afford to wait for the little one to come; it shan’t be more than a few weeks.”

“That’ll be good and entertaining,” Zanzayed muttered. “What’s your plan, then? Since you are to be our designated human expert.”

“The Universal Church is a nut not easily cracked,” Razzavinax mused, gazing into the fire and stroking Maiyenn’s hair. “The exact nature of the Archpope’s relationship to the Pantheon is…difficult to tease out. Several of Justinian’s predecessors have engaged in activities that were decidedly against the wishes of the gods. As, certainly, has he. However, he unquestionably enjoys their protection. To come at him with force would be to rile the Pantheon, a thing which has never ended well for out kind. No… Before we act, we will have to investigate.”

“Investigate what?” Zanza demanded. “And how?”

“Why, haven’t you been listening?” Razzavinax smiled at him. “We must discern the nature of Justinian’s connections. Find out who is moving against and around him, and how; where his Church is strong and where it is vulnerable. We must suss out the currents within his organization to learn just how we can separate Khadizroth from his clutches. In short, cousin… It’s high time we paid an extended visit to Tiraas.”

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