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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 – 38

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“So naturally, you brought it here,” Tellwyrn said in exasperation.

“She,” Toby said firmly. “Come on, Professor. That’s a person you’re talking about.”

“Hello,” Scorn offered, apparently noticing that attention was focused on her.

“What,” Tellwyrn demanded, “do you think I’m going to do with a Rhaazke? I’m not even going to bother being taken aback that you kids managed to get one. Somehow it’s always you lot!”

“Point of order!” Fross chimed. “We didn’t get her! A stupid man was trying to summon a succubus and fell afoul of an unpredictable chaos effect. So, really, it wasn’t even his fault, though it’s very tempting to blame him because he was really dumb and also a great big creep. But still. These things just happen.”

Professor Yornhaldt burst out laughing, earning a glare from Tellwyrn. Her office was rather crowded with the entire sophomore class present, plus Tellwyrn behind her desk, and Yornhaldt and Rafe in chairs against one of her bookcases. Scorn stood in the corner nearest the door, hunching somewhat awkwardly to keep her horns from brushing the ceiling.

“Maybe what you do with any of us?” Ruda suggested. “I mean, let’s face it, the student body here is probably the biggest collection of weirdos on this continent, if not the planet.”

“This is not a hostel,” Tellwyrn said acidly. “We don’t take in strays just because they have no place better to be!”

“Where would you suggest sending her, then?” Trissiny asked quietly. “What else could we have done?”

“BEHOLD!” Scorn shouted.

Tellwyrn buried her face in her hands, displacing her glasses. Rafe howled with laughter.

“If I may?” Shaeine said with customary serenity. “Scorn is a daughter of nobility in her own realm; her principal problem seems to be unfamiliarity with the mortal plane. The speed with which she is picking up Tanglish suggests a capable intellect, and she certainly meets the qualification you set out for us in our very first class last year. She is too dangerous to be allowed to wander around untrained. All in all, she would appear to be the very model of an Unseen University student.”

“I know it’s unusual to enroll a student at this point in the academic year, Arachne,” Yornhaldt added, “but really. These are unusual circumstances, and what is this if not an unusual place?”

“She’s completely clueless about every detail of life on this plane,” Tellwyrn grated. “Can you lot even begin to imagine the havoc that could ensue from her mingling with the student body? Or worse, the general populace. What would she do if sent out on one of your field assignments? And the curriculum here is not designed to hand-hold people who have no concept what anything in the world is. The closest parallels to this case in the University’s entire history are Juniper and Fross, and they at least speak the language!”

“Well, we have to put her somewhere,” said Gabriel. “I mean, it’s not like you can just kill her.”

“Oh, really,” Tellwyrn said flatly.

“Yeah, really,” he replied, meeting her eyes unflinchingly. “Just. I said you can’t just kill her. You can no doubt do that or anything else you want, but not until you’ve plowed through every one of us first.”

“Whoah, guys,” Juniper said soothingly. “Of course she’s irate, we just dropped a Rhaazke demon in her lap. Professor Tellwyrn’s only that mean to people who’ve done something to deserve it. C’mon, let’s everybody calm down, okay?”

“Excellent advice,” Shaeine agreed.

“All right,” said Tellwyrn, drumming her fingers on the desk and staring at Scorn, who peered quizzically back. “All right. This is what we’ll do. I am not enrolling this walking disaster in your or any class at this juncture. Don’t start, Caine, I am not done talking! She can stay with the girls in Clarke Tower; it has a basement space that should be big enough to be fairly comfortable for her. If she’s going to be on the campus, she’s not to leave it; I refuse to have to explain this to the Sheriff. You lot, since you had the bright idea to bring her here, will be responsible for bringing her up to speed on life in the world. Teach her Tanglish, local customs, the political realities of the Empire, the cults… You know, all the stuff none of you bother to think about because you’ve known it for years.”

“I bother to think about it,” said Fross.

“Me, too,” Juniper added.

“Good, that’ll make you perfect tutors, then. We’ll revisit this issue next semester, and if I judge her prepared, she may join the class of 1183 at that time. If not… She can take that semester and the summer for further familiarity, though frankly I will consider it a big black mark if she hasn’t the wits to get her claws under her in the next few months. If she is still not ready or willing to be University material at the start of next fall’s semester, that’s it. No more chances. Then I’ll have to figure out what to do with her, which I frankly do not suspect anybody will like.”

“That’s fair,” Trissiny said quickly. “She’s smart. I’m sure she’ll be good to go by this spring.”

“Not kill?” Scorn inquired.

“Sadly, no,” Ruda said while Tellwyrn leaned far back in her chair, letting her head loll against it to stare at the ceiling.

“Well, anyway,” Rafe said brightly, “you’ll get my detailed report later, Arachne, but the kids did a damn fine job. Not at all their fault that the Church butted in at the last moment—they were right on the cusp of getting to the bottom of Veilgrad’s problem, and I have to say their investigation was deftly handled. A much better showing than the Golden Sea expedition!”

“Aw, we can’t take too much credit,” Ruda said sweetly. “Professor Rafe helped a lot by fucking around in Malivette’s house with her concubines instead of sticking his clumsy fingers into our business. Like in the Golden Sea expedition.”

“HAH! Straightforward, on-target sass, Punaji! Ten points—”

“Admestus, shut your yap,” Tellwyrn snapped. “I am in no mood. For the time being, pending a full report, you kids can consider your grade for this assignment in good shape. All right, all of you get lost. Go settle in, get some rest; you’ve got assignments waiting in your rooms. Classes are tomorrow as usual. Have fun explaining this to Janis,” she added, flapping a hand disparagingly at Scorn.

“Pointing is for no,” the demon said severely. “Rude. Social skills!”

“Malivette is scary even when she’s not here,” Fross whispered.

“Hell, Janis loves having people to mother,” Ruda said, grinning. “I bet Scorn’s never had muffins. C’mon, big girl.”

“I’m a little nervous how she’ll react to the tower,” Teal said as they began filing out the door. “Any sane person is unnerved by that tower at first glance.”

“Welp, I’ll just get on with my paperwork, then, shall I?” Rafe said, rising and following them.

“How industrious of you, Admestus,” Tellwyrn said flatly. “What did you do this time?”

He grinned insanely. “Wait, learn, and be amazed.”

“Get the hell out.”

“Aye aye, fearless leader!”

Fross hesitated in the top of the door after everyone else departed. “It’s good to see you back, Professor Yornhaldt!”

“Thank you, Fross,” he said, smiling. “I’m quite glad to see all of you again, as well!”

The pixie shut the door with a careful push of elemental air, leaving them alone.

Tellwyrn set her glasses on the desk, massaging the brim of her nose. “Those kids are going to be the graduating class that brings me the most pride and satisfaction if they don’t burn the whole goddamn place down, first.”

“That’s not entirely fair, Arachne,” Yornhaldt protested. “They are pretty obviously not the ones who opened the hellgate. And they were, after all, instrumental in closing it.”

“You know exactly what I mean.”

“Yes, I’m afraid so,” he said with a sigh. “But this is business as usual, Arachne, just more of it. Some of those kids have fearfully direct connections to significant powers, but in the end, we’ve been training up heroes and villains for half a century now, and sending them out to face their destiny.”

“There are no such things as heroes or villains,” she grunted. “Or destiny.”

Yornhaldt smiled, folding his thick hands over his midsection. “I disagree, as you well know.”

“Yes, yes, let’s not get in that argument again.” She put her spectacles back on and gave him a more serious look. “You were in the middle of telling me of your adventures when Admestus barged in with the goslings.”

“Actually, I had just finished telling you of my adventures. Although I had a rather interesting time procuring a new suit with most of my money having walked off during—ah, but I gather you don’t care to hear about that.”

“Naturally I’ll reimburse you for any expenses,” she said. “But the research, Alaric. It’s really a dead end?”

Yornhaldt frowned in thought, gazing at the far wall but seeing nothing. “I cannot accept that it’s a dead end, but I may be forced to accept that continuing down this particular path is beyond me. It’s an alignment, Arachne, I’m sure of it. But an alignment of what is the question. I am certain there are astronomical factors, but this is unique in that the stars and bodies coming into position are beyond our current society’s capacity to detect. That much I can say with certainty; a few of the surviving sources were of a scientific mindset and blessedly plainspoken. There must have been means for such long-distance viewing during the time of the Elder Gods, but right now, we simply cannot see the distant galaxies which must be taken into account.”

“That doesn’t make sense,” she said, frowning heavily. “On the cosmic scale you’re talking about, eight thousand of this planet’s years is nothing. An eyeblink—it’s one tenth of one percent of a fart. There wouldn’t be significant deviation from their positions relative to us eight millennia prior. And that’s not even addressing the question of how such distant objects even could influence matters on this world. You know as well as I the upper limits of magical influence. It’s not constrained by the lightspeed constant, but it’s far from infinite.”

“Just so,” he agreed, nodding. “Which brings me to the other issue: I am convinced that what is being aligned is planar as well as physical. Perhaps more so. There are factors relating to the positions of the infernal, divine and elemental planes relative to this one. Unfortunately,” he added with a scowl, “most of this information seems to have been recorded by bards. Or at least, individuals who thought a poetic turn of phrase was a useful addition to the historical record. Considering that this work requires finding the few sources that have even survived, translating them out of dead languages… We’re in the realm of lore, now, Arachne. I have a hankering to continue the project, but I also need to acknowledge that I’m not the best person for it. If you can help me work out a means of measuring and scrying on things in other galaxies, that I’ll do with a will. This… We need a historian. Preferably a somewhat spoony one.”

“I should think a less spoony mindset would be more useful in untangling those records,” she said dryly.

Yornhaldt grimaced. “I consider myself as unspoony as they come, and I mostly found the work frustrating.”

Tellwyrn sighed and drummed her fingers on the desk again. “Well. Based on the speed with which actual events are unfolding, we have at least a year. Likely more; apocalypses like this don’t just drop from the trees like pinecones. If the alignment does lead to another apotheosis, as everything seems to suggest, the gods will be taking action, as will those closest to them, before it actually hits. For now,” she went on with a smile, “I’m damned glad to see you home safe, Alaric.”

“I have to confess I am as well,” he replied, grinning.

“Unfortunately, I can’t put you back at a lectern just yet. I promised Kaisa the year; I don’t even know whether she wants the full year, but the issue is it was promised to her. The last thing I need on top of everything else is an offended kitsune tearing up my campus.”

“Arachne, I’m sure I have no idea what you are going on about,” Yornhaldt replied, folding his hands behind his head and leaning back against the books. “Teach classes? You forget, I am on sabbatical.”


 

“It is a great relief to see you all back unharmed,” Archpope Justinian said with a beneficent smile. “Your mission brought you into conflict with some very dangerous individuals.”

“Yep,” the Jackal replied lazily. “Since apparently that was the entire and only point of the whole exercise, it sure did happen.”

“None of us are shy about conflict, your Holiness,” Shook said tightly. “Being jerked around, lied to and sent into big, pointless surprises is another thing. You want someone killed? We’ll do it. I don’t appreciate being told to dig in the desert for weeks for damn well nothing. As bait.”

Kheshiri gently slipped her arm through his and he broke off. A tense silence hung over the room for a long moment.

Their assigned quarters in the sub-level of the Dawnchapel temple in Tiraas were actually quite luxurious. Private rooms branched off from a broad, circular chamber with a sunken floor in the center. This had originally been some kind of training complex, probably for the martial arts for which the temple’s original Omnist owners were famous. Now, the area was tastefully but expensively furnished, the chamber serving as a lounge, dining room, and meeting area.

The five members of the team were arrayed in an uneven arc, their focus on the Archpope, who stood with Colonel Ravoud at his shoulder. The Colonel looked tense and ready to go for his wand, but if Justinian was at all perturbed by the destructive capacity arranged against him, he showed no hint of it.

“I understand this assignment has been the source of several surprises for you,” he said calmly. “For me, as well. I found your choice of strategy extremely intriguing, Khadizroth. Did I not know better, I might conclude your decision to attack Imperial interests was designed to draw their interest to your own activities. You must forgive me; dealing with as many politics as I do, I tend to see ulterior motives where they may not exist.”

“I believe we have been over this,” Khadizroth replied in a bored tone. “It was necessary to deal with McGraw, Jenkins, and the rest—indeed, it turns out that was the sole reason we were out there. At the time, depriving them of their secure base of operations seemed the best strategy.”

“And yet, neither you nor they suffered any permanent casualties,” Justinian said. “How fortuitous. Surely the gods must have been watching over you.”

“Would it be disrespectful to snort derisively?” Kheshiri stage-whispered to Shook, who grinned. She was in human guise, as always on temple grounds. The original consecration on the place had been lifted to allow her to function here.

“I think you could stand to consider who you’re dealing with, here, your Archness,” said the Jackal, folding his arms. “Really, now. We’ve all got a sense of honor, or at least professionalism. None of us mind doing the work. But is this really a group of people it’s wise to jerk around?”

“None of you are prisoners,” Justinian said serenely. “If at any time you wish to discontinue our association, you may do so without fear of reprisal from me. Indeed, I’m forced to confess I might find some relief in it; our relationship does place a strain upon my conscience at times. Due to my position, I am beholden to the Sisters of Avei, the Thieves’ Guild, and other organizations which are eager to know about the movements of most of you. It would assuage my qualms to be able to be more forthright with them.”

Shook tightened his fists until they fairly vibrated; Khadizroth blinked his eyes languidly. The others only stared at Justinian, who gazed beatifically back. Ravoud’s eyes darted across the group, clearly trying to anticipate from which direction the attack would come.

“For the time being, however,” said the Archpope after a strained pause, “I encourage you all to rest after your travels. Unless you decide otherwise, I shall have more work for you very soon. Welcome home, my friends.”

With a final nod and smile, he turned and swept out of the chamber, Ravoud on his heels. The Colonel glanced back at them once before shutting the doors to their suite.

Shook began cursing monotonously.

“Well said!” the Jackal said brightly.

Khadizroth stepped backward away from the group and turned his head, studying the outlines of the room. “Vannae, assist me?”

The elf nodded, raising his hands to the side as the dragon did the same. A whisper of wind rose, swirling around the perimeter of the chamber, and the light changed to pale, golden green. The shadows of tree branches swayed against the walls.

“I attempted to insulate any loose fae energy,” Khadizroth said, lowering his arms. “Kheshiri, are you aversely affected?”

The succubus pressed herself close to Shook’s side; he tightened his arm around her. “Not really. Doesn’t feel good, but I’m not harmed.”

“Splendid.” The dragon smiled. “This will ensure our privacy, since we were not able to catch up before returning here. How did your…adventure go?”

She glanced up at Shook, who nodded to her, before answering. “Everything went smoothly—I’m good at what I do. You were right, K. Svenheim was a trap.”

“You’re certain?” Khadizroth narrowed his eyes.

“Not enough that I’d stake my life on it,” she admitted. “But the Church is an active presence in the city, and I observed some very close interactions between its agents and curators at the Royal Museum.”

“I knew that fucking dwarf was gonna backstab us,” Shook growled.

“Not necessarily,” Khadizroth mused. “Svarveld may have been a double agent, or he may have been as betrayed as we. The point ended up being moot, anyway. We will simply have to remember this, and not underestimate Justinian again.”

“Why would he bother with that, though?” the Jackal asked. “He knew the skull wasn’t even in circulation. We were never going to acquire it, much less send it to Svenheim instead of Tiraas.”

Khadizroth shook his head. “Unknowable. I suspect there are currents to this that flow deeper than we imagine. Did you have time to tend to the other task I asked of you, Kheshiri?”

“Easy,” she replied, her tail waving behind her. “I swung by Tiraas on my way back; only took a few hours.”

“What’s this?” the Jackal demanded. “I thought we were sending the demon to Svenheim to snoop. How did you even get across the continent and back?”

“Oh, that reminds me,” Kheshiri said sweetly, producing a twisted shadow-jumping talisman from behind her back and tossing it to her. “You shouldn’t leave your things lying around.”

The assassin rolled his eyes, catching it deftly. “That’s right, let’s have a ‘who’s sneakier’ pissing contest. I’m sure there’s no way that’ll backfire.”

“Quite,” Khadizroth said sharply. “Kindly show your teammates a little more respect, Kheshiri. This group is primed to dissolve into infighting anyway; we cannot afford such games.”

“Of course,” she said sincerely. “My apologies. But in any case, your message was received and acknowledged. No response as yet.”

“Give it time,” he murmured.

“Message?” Vannae inquired.

“Indeed.” The dragon smiled thinly. “Justinian is not the only one with dangerous connections.”


 

“Busy?” Rizlith sang, sliding into the room.

Zanzayed looked up, beaming. “Riz! Never too busy for my favorite distraction. He’s got me doing paperwork. Help!”

“Aw, poor baby,” the succubus cooed, sashaying forward. “I bet I can take your mind off it.”

“I should never have introduced you,” Razzavinax muttered, straightening up from where he had been bent over the desk, studying documents. “Zanza, Riz…don’t encourage each other.”

“Well, joshing aside, there’s been a development I think you’ll urgently want to hear,” Rizlith said, folding her wings neatly and seating herself on one corner of the desk.

“A development?” Razzavinax said sharply. “Do we need to revisit that tedious conversation about you leaving the embassy?”

“Oh, relax, I’ve been safely cooped up in here the whole time,” she said sullenly. “No, the development came to me. And by the way, if you’re just now hearing of this, your wards need some fine-tuning. I had a visit from one of my sisters.”

“Sisters?” Zanzayed inquired. “Like…an actual sister, or is that just demon-speak for another of your kind?”

“You do know we’re not an actual species, right?” Rizlith turned to Razzavinax. “You’ve explained it to him, haven’t you?”

“Never mind that,” the Red said curtly. “Children of Vanislaas are not sociable with each other as a rule, Zanzayed; developments like this are always alarming.”

“Oh, quite so,” the succubus said with fiendish glee. “But Kheshiri brought me the most fascinating gossip!”

“Kheshiri,” Razzavinax muttered. “That’s a name I’m afraid I know. How bad is it?”

“That depends.” Rizlith grinned broadly, swaying slightly back and forth; her tail lashed as if she could barely contain herself. “Weren’t you guys looking for Khadizroth the Green a while back?”


 

Even strolling down the sidewalk in civilian attire, Nora did not allow herself to lose focus. She had been trained too long and too deeply to be unaware of her surroundings. When four people near her suddenly slumped sideways as if drunk, it wasn’t that fact alone so much as her reaction to it that told her something was badly wrong. She paused in her own walk, noting distantly that this was peculiar, and well below the level of her consciousness, training kicked in. It was much more than peculiar; her mind was not operating as it should.

Nora blinked her eyes, focusing on that tiny movement and the interruptions it caused in her vision. Mental influence—fairly mild, and clearly concentrated on an area of effect, not just targeting her. That meant the solution was to keep moving…

Then she was grabbed, her arms bound roughly behind her, and tossed into the back of a carriage that had pulled up next to the curb.

She hadn’t even seen anyone approach. Hadn’t noticed the delivery carriage pull up. How humiliating. It began moving, however, and the effect subsided with distance, enabling her to focus again on her surroundings.

It was a delivery truck, or had been originally; basically a large box with a loading door on the back built atop an enchanted carriage chassis. The runes tracing the walls indicated silencing charms, as did the lack of street noise once the doors were shut. One bench was built against the front wall of the compartment, with a single dim fairy lamp hanging in on corner, swaying slightly with the motions of the carriage.

The space was crowded. Four men stood around Nora, one with a hand knotted in her hair to keep her upright—she only belatedly realized that she had landed on her knees on the floor. On the bench opposite sat a thin man with glasses, who had a briefcase open on his lap, positioned to hid its contents from her. Against the wall on the other end of the bench perched a woman Nora recognized from a recent mission briefing.

“Good morning, Marshal Avelea,” Grip said pleasantly. “Thanks for joining us, I realize this was short notice.”

“I hope you don’t mind that I didn’t get dressed up,” Nora said flatly.

The thief grinned. “Saucy, aren’t we? Just like a hero out of a bard’s story. I thought you Imperial professionals were supposed to clam up when captured.”

“Would that make you happier?”

“I’m not here to be happy,” Grip said, her smile fading. “I get a certain satisfaction from my work, sure, but it’s not as if breaking people’s joints makes me happy, per se.”

“I don’t think you’ve considered the implications of this,” said Nora. “I’m an agent of Imperial Intelligence. If you intend—”

“Now, see, that attitude is why you are in this situation, missy. People seem to forget that we are a faith, not a cartel. This isn’t about intimidation—because no, the Imps don’t really experience that, do they? But when you start boasting about how your organization is too powerful to stand for this, well…” Grip leaned forward, staring icily down at her captive. “Then you make beating your ass an absolute moral necessity, rather than just a satisfying diversion.

“Besides, it’s all part of the cost of doing business. Your training means you won’t be excessively traumatized by anything that happens here, and your superiors will accept this as the inevitable consequence of their blundering and not push it further. You may not know, but I guarantee Lord Vex does, that the Empire is not a bigger fish than Eserion. At least one sitting Empress found herself unemployed as a result of pushing back too hard when we expressed an opinion. So this right here is a compromise! We’ll discuss the matter of you attempting to kill a member of our cult, Vex will be especially respectful for a while, and we can all avoid addressing the much more serious matter that you, apparently, are not afraid of the Thieves’ Guild.”

Grip very slowly raised on eyebrow. “Because believe you me, Marshal, I can fix that. But then there really would be trouble. So, let’s just attend to business and go our separate ways, shall we?”

“Fine, whatever,” Nora said disdainfully. “Could you stop talking and be about it already? Some of us have plans for this evening.”

Grip sighed. “I wish you wouldn’t say such things,” she complained. “Now this is going to suck up my whole afternoon. Toybox, start with that nervous system stimulating thingy of yours. When I’m satisfied the bravado is genuinely regretted, the lads can move on to the more traditional means.”


 

“This is on me,” Darling said, scowling.

“You’re awful eager to take credit for someone who wasn’t there,” Billie remarked, puffing lazily at one of McGraw’s cigarillos.

Darling shook his head. “Weaver, want to explain why she’s mistaken?”

“Always a pleasure,” said the bard, who sat crookedly in the armchair with one arm thrown over the back. “First rule of being in charge: everything is your fault. Being the man with the plan, he takes responsibility for any fucking up that occurs. More specifically, he sent us out without doing some very basic research that could’ve spared us all this.”

“Knew I could count on you,” Darling said dryly.

“Acknowledging that I am not generally eager to let you off the hook, Mr. Darling,” said Joe with a frown, “realistically, how could you have known the skull wasn’t in the Badlands?”

“Known? No.” Darling sighed, slouching back in his own chair. “But Weaver’s right. I found a trail and followed it without doing any further research. Hell, I knew about the werewolf issue in Veilgrad—we even discussed it, briefly. All I had to do was check with my contacts in the Imperial government for signs of possible chaos effects. Too late to say what difference it would have made—we might have decided to go for the Badlands anyway, as the Veilgrad case wasn’t a confirmed chaos incident until mere days ago—but it would’ve been something. Instead I got tunnel vision, bit Justinian’s bait and risked all your lives for damn well nothing. Somehow, ‘I’m sorry’ doesn’t really cut the mustard this time.”

“You know better than this, Antonio,” Mary said calmly. “Learn the lesson and apply it next time. Recrimination is not a constructive use of our time.”

“Right you are,” he said dourly. “Regardless, I feel I owe you all something for this. The oracles settled down when the skull was secured, so the projects I’m pursuing on you behalf are again proceeding. It’s hard to tell, but I’ve a hunch that I’m close to an answer for you, at least, Mary.” He grimaced. “Unless the trend of the responses I’ve been getting reverses, I’m starting to fear it’s an answer you won’t like.”

“I do not go through life expecting to like everything,” she said calmly.

“Wise,” he agreed. “Anyway, it’s Weaver’s question that I think will be the toughest. I get the impression they’re actively fighting me on that. It may be my imagination, and the general difficulty of working with oracular sources, but still…”

“Wouldn’t surprise me in the slightest,” Weaver muttered.

“If nothin’ else,” said McGraw, “this wasn’t wasted time. We’ve learned some interesting things about our opponents.”

“And about ourselves,” Weaver added caustically. “Such as that Billie’s too theatrical to just kill an assassin when she has him helpless, rather than painting him with a stealth-penetrating effect.”

“Aye, now ye mention it that would’ve been more efficient,” Billie mused. “Hm. I’m well equipped for big bangs, but it occurs t’me I’ve got little that’d straight-up off a single target at close range. Funny, innit? I’ll have to augment me arsenal. I love doin’ that!”

“You said that green fire came out of a bottle?” said Joe. “That’d be a remarkable achievement if it was just a spell. How in tarnation did you manage to do it alchemically?”

“Oh, aye, that’s a point,” Billie said seriously. “Don’t let me forget, I owe Admestus Rafe either a really expensive bottle o’ wine or a blowjob.”

Weaver groaned loudly and clapped a hand over his eyes.

“Can’t help ya,” Joe said, his cheeks darkening. “I’m gonna be hard at work forgetting that starting immediately.”

“How do you plan to proceed?” Mary asked Darling. “It would appear that waiting for Justinian to take the initiative is a losing strategy.”

“You’re right about that,” the Bishop agreed. “And I do believe that some of what you’ve brought back is immediately relevant. For example, that he is harboring a fugitive from the Thieves’ Guild.”

“Is it wise to act on that point?” McGraw inquired. “Shook bein’ on his team is part o’ that game of intelligence chicken you’n Justinian are playin’, right? The one you’re not s’posed to acknowledge knowin’ about.”

“Some day I’m gonna hold you and Jenkins at wandpoint until you both prove you can pronounce the letter G,” Weaver grumbled.

“Oh, I’m sure Justinian will know exactly how the Guild learned of this,” Darling said with a grim smile. “If he didn’t want to play that game, he shouldn’t have made the first move. I’m not waiting for him to make the next one.”


 

“I’m sorry this business didn’t work out the way you hoped, your Holiness,” Ravoud said as the two men arrived in the small, glass-walled enclosure atop the ziggurat behind the Dawnchapel.

“On the contrary,” Justinian said, gazing out over the city, “this has been an extremely successful field test. We now have an idea of the effectiveness of Khadizroth’s group against Darling’s, which was the purpose of the exercise.”

“They seem pretty evenly matched…”

“Power for power, yes, but we knew that to begin with. And power is not so simply measured.” Justinian tilted his head backward, studying the cloudy sky. “Considering the violence all those people are capable of, their total lack of casualties indicates a mutual disinclination to inflict them. That is the most important thing we have learned. Using adventurers to winnow each other down will only work if they do not comprehend where their true best interests lie. These, clearly, do. Another strategy will be necessary.”

“I suppose this proves we can’t expect loyalty out of that group,” Ravoud said, scowling. “Hardly a surprise.”

“Indeed,” Justinian agreed with a smile. “Khadizroth deems himself above me, Vannae is loyal only to him, and the rest of them are simply monsters of one kind or another. Loyalty was never on the table. What is interesting to me is how quickly and openly Khadizroth set about undermining me. He is more than patient and far-sighted enough to play a longer, more careful game. Holding back from killing their opponents, attracting the Empire’s attention, that ploy to have the skull sent to Svenheim… To take such risks, he must perceive an urgency that I do not. That must be investigated more closely. It will also be important to learn whether the other party is operating on the same principles, or has developed an actual loyalty to Antonio. They are a more level-headed group, generally, and he is quite persuasive.”

“Forgive me for questioning you, your Holiness,” said Ravoud, carefully schooling his features, “but it is beyond my understanding why you tolerate that man. You know he’s plotting against you, and there’s not much that’s more dangerous than an Eserite with an ax to grind.”

“Antonio Darling is one of my most treasured servants,” the Archpope said softly, still gazing into the distance. “I will not have him harmed, nor deprive myself of his skills. Matters are tense now, because I cannot yet reveal everything to everyone. He has no cause to trust, and thus I have to arrange these diversions to keep him from investigating things he is not yet ready to know. When the full truth can be revealed, he of all people will find my cause the best way to advance his own principles and goals.”

“As you say, your Holiness,” Ravoud murmured. “Did… Do you intend to make some use of the skull?”

“Objects like that are not to be used,” Justinian said severely, turning to face him. “I fear I have abused my authority by making it a part of my plans at all. Frankly, my predecessor was unwise to have the Church take custody of that thing; it is far better off in the hands of the Salyrites. The goddess of magic can keep it safe better than anyone.” He sighed heavily. “My attempts to compensate for the risk seem to have backfired. We are still gathering intelligence from Veilgrad, but indications are the charms and blessings I designed to protect the people from the skull’s effects enabled those cultists to remain lucid enough to do significant harm, rather than blindly lashing out as chaos cultists always have. In addition to the damage to Veilgrad and its people, that has drawn the attention of the Empire.”

“That, though, could be useful by itself,” Rouvad said slowly. “If those same blessings can be used for agents of the Church… If there is ever another major chaos incident, they could protect our people, keep them functional.”

“Perhaps,” Justinian mused. “Regardless, I will have to meditate at length on a proper penance for myself; I have unquestionably caused harm to innocents with this. I badly misjudged the risks involved. Still… From all these events I feel I have learned something of great value.”

He turned again to gaze out through the glass wall over the rooftops of Tiraas. “In Veilgrad, a class from the University at Last Rock were hard at work interfering with my plans. And I note that one of the first actions undertaken by Darling’s group was to visit Last Rock itself. Everywhere I turn, Arachne Tellwyrn’s fingers dabble in my affairs. Just as they nearly upended Lor’naris last year, and Sarasio months before.”

“That’s…sort of a fact of life, isn’t it, your Holiness?” Rouvad said carefully. “There’s just not much that can be done about Tellwyrn. That’s the whole point of her.”

“No power is absolute, Nassir,” Justinian said softly. “Be they archmages, gods, or empires. They only have the appearance of absolute power because the people agree that they do. Such individuals live in fear of the masses discovering that they do not need to tolerate their overlords. Every tyrant can be brought down.

“I was always going to have to deal with Tellywrn sooner or later. We cannot rid the world of its last destructive adventurers when she is spewing out another score of them every year—to say nothing of her specifically elitist methods of recruitment. She targets those already most powerful and dangerous and equips them to be even worse. No… Arachne Tellwyrn must be dealt with.”

He nodded slowly to himself, staring into the distant sky. “If she insists on making herself a more urgent priority… So be it.”

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9 – 22

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

“A what?” Trissiny asked distractedly.

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

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

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

“I would never!” Juniper exclaimed in horror.

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

Trissiny had stopped and turned to stare incredulously at Shaeine.

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

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

“Thanks, Fross,” Toby said resignedly.

“No problem!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She paused, staring at the students.

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

“Hello,” said Schkhurrankh.

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

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

“Oh. Right.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Hello,” she said sheepishly.

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

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

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

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

Schkhurrankh—Scorn—grinned again. “Hello!”

“Vrackdish khnavai?” Teal asked.

Scorn blinked at her twice, then began snickering.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hello!” Scorn said brightly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I live to serve!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“If fher a profful?” she inquired.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Uh, what?” Juniper asked. “Who is?”

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

“Uh,” said Fross.

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Sergeant,” she said caustically.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Older,” he said idly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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 – 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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