“Ensi kuori!” Valaista shrieked. “What are those?!”
Thanos spat to clear his mouth. Wiry, emaciated figures pulsating with profane life, slavering and shrieking for blood, scampered and tumbled towards them. “Slaughter wights!” Gods! He’d never seen so many in one place before. Maybe every now and then, on a battlefield...but this...
The dragon-girl’s sword was in her hand. “What do I do?” she demanded.
To his relief, she didn’t sound panicked. “Karrick teach you combat expertise?” he demanded. He considered drawing his sword but rejected the idea at once. He already held Freste’s rod in one hand, and needed the other free for casting. He’d left the mithral staff – Sylak, Svarda’s gift – back at Domus Casia. Probably should’ve thought about bringing that, he mused grimly.
“Use it!” he commanded. “Full defence!” He switched the rod to his left hand and clenched his right fist until the knuckles cracked. Decades of experience raced through his mind. Undead: cold immunity, sometimes lightning immunity. Fire works. So do force spells, sonic, sunlight. Incantations of dreadful power ran through his mind. “Don’t let’em touch you!” he added unnecessarily. “They’re deadly. One of’em hits you, you’re going down.”
The girl snarled – a deep, tearing, feral roar. Thanos cast her an alarmed glance; then, realizing what she had in mind, he grinned. “Good idea!” he shouted.
He felt the rippling pulse in the flux as she shrugged off her disguise and exploded into her true shape. A blast of heated air washed over him as she shook out her wings.
What’s the big one? she asked suddenly, blasting the thought into his mind.
Thanos risked a glance over his shoulder. Half-way across the square, a towering figure was shambling towards them, looming over the wights like a thing out of a nightmare, moaning and gibbering madly in its eagerness to reach the encircled pair. Festooned in rotting rags and hanging tatters of flesh, teeth showing through missing lips, horns of green-black perched above empty eye-sockets...he drew in a sharp breath. Oozing runnels of corruption dripped from its maw, its claws, staining the flagstones...
Thanos blinked. “No idea! But it’s not good!”
The dragon crouched, extending her neck and hissing menacingly at the encroaching ring of monsters. Thanos slapped her flank with his free hand.
She turned her burning eyes on him. What?
He barked a spell: Palo kilpii suojavaat monet! Instantly, a sheathe of bright violet flames sprang up around his body, leaping to the dragon and surrounding her as well. “Get up! Get up in the air! Away from me!” He gave her a shove. “Get out of range!”
Valaista blinked in surprise...then, realizing what he was talking about, gathered herself, leapt upwards, and began clawing for sky room.
The powerful downbeats rippled his hair and clothing. Thanos watched her for a moment to ensure she was following his orders, then turned back to the swiftly-encroaching foes. He measured the distance with a practiced eye. Ten paces, and moving fast. They’d be on him in seconds.
He had time for two thoughts. The first one, naturally, was: I wish I'd brought Karrick.
The second was...What now?
The men. There were hundreds of them, common troopers, spearment and swordsmen and archers, ranged before the tower gates. “Fall back!” he screamed. “Everybody! Now! Take shelter!”
Cupping her wingtips, Valaista clawed her way skyward. She felt slow, clumsy; dragons were built to take off from a running start, and a direct ascent left her hanging exposed in mid-air, like a plum on a branch, fat and ripe for plucking. But she had no alternative; she had seen what Thanos was capable of, and there was no way she was going to get anywhere near the yowling horrors that had leapt through with them.
The ascent left her grinding her fangs in frustration. Her master had described the courtyard of the Steenborg before executing their leap, but it had still come as a surprise. The place was like a well. The curtain wall and gatehouse to her rear were the lowest and least-imposing part of the structure, and even they were terrifying to behold; the wall was topped with a parapet festooned with iron spikes, and the tower was just as terrifying. The structures to right and left were larger than anything she had ever seen – colossal, towering bastions of stone, buttressed and revetted and looking more like mountains than the abodes of men. But nothing compared to the fortress itself. The Steenborg loomed over the square like a vulture on a branch. It was a massive, brooding thing of black stone faced with iron, with a pair of flanking towers leaning forward like encircling arms, drawing attackers inwards toward the donjon itself: impossibly massive, impossibly tall, ringed with turrets and parapets.
The flanking towers were nearer, lower, and – truth be told – less threatening. She twitched her tail and spilled air from her left wing, banking and heading for the lower of the two parapets on the southwards tower. The higher parapet would probably have been safer, she reasoned, but she had no intention of abandoning her master entirely. She might only be able to use forcedarts to aid him, but she could do that much at least, and the range from the upper parapet to the courtyard looked to be too far for her meagre skills.
At the last possible instant she flared and drew up her hindlegs. Her claws scraped across the tops of the merlons, she snapped her wings twice in a stall, and she thumped to the stones of the parapet...
...in the middle of a teeming throng of humans. Before she could so much as steady herself, no less than a dozen crossbows were pointing at various portions of her anatomy. And not only crossbows. Most of the humans on the parapet, she realized suddenly, were neither armoured no armed. They did, however, look exceedingly vigilant.
One of these – a male – was pointing what appeared to be a short, blunt metallic stick at her. His other hand was crooked oddly in a gesture that she had seen Thanos use more than once. “Identify yourself!” he snapped.
“Valaistanaulata,” she replied immediately, articulating the words of the traveling tongue with careful precision, folding her wings slowly and ensuring that her forelimbs made no unexpected gestures. “Apprentice to warmage Thanos Mastigo.”
The human cast a glance over his shoulder at a female that was standing immediately behind him. This latter nodded curtly, then turned back to stare between the merlons. She too, Valaista noted, seemed to be holding a stick – this one of bent, gnarled wood.
The male nodded once. “Find a hole. Our arcs are the main gate to Horseguards Gate. Effseeoh unrestricted; dump everything you got. Try not to hit your boss.” He slapped her armoured shoulder and winked. “ ‘Cept by accident, o’course.”
Valaista sat back on her tail, stunned.
The man was working his way between two crossbowmen, trying to squeeze into the loophole they had occupied. When he saw her hesitate, he frowned. “Problem?”
The dragon blinked. “ ‘What’s ‘effseeoh’ unrestricted?' What does that mean?”
The human rolled his eyes. “Kill everything you can see, anyway you like.”
“What?!” She felt a cough boiling up in her breast and fought to still it. “What about your...your soldiers?”
The man grinned. “What soldiers?”
Thanos had expected his foes to disperse and attack individual targets, and they didn’t disappoint him; the instant his first fireball exploded, igniting a dozen of the beasts and blasting them across the stones, the rest scattered, heading for the formed troops nearest them. He’d seen their sort before, although never in such terrifying numbers. They were a fixture of lost battlefields, roaming amid corpses, consuming the dead with horrific abandon. Had these been nothing more than the common breed of scavenger, he might have handled them all himself; however, this particular species – the soldiers of the Empire called them ‘slaughter wights’ – was especially fearsome, tending to arise from the corpses of men slain by magic. They arose fuelled by the flux, and by an inescapable craving for flesh; and, unlike their brethren, they consumed also the life energy of the living.
The answer – as always, where revenants were concerned – was fire, and plenty of it. His first strike blasted a gaping hole in their ranks. The explosion burst like a miniature sun, illuminating the courtyard in a brief, terrible blast of red-gold light, eliciting shrieks of rage and agony from the foes he had targeted.
He ground his teeth as the enemy fiends, leaping and tumbling in a charge that would under different circumstances have been almost funny, ploughed into the ranks of his countrymen. Claws slashed, red blood spurted, and men screamed and died. The rest – with the exception of one century that looked a little steadier than the others – broke and fled, screaming in terrified panic.
He frowned. There was something wrong with that. He’d never seen –
A claw slashed past his head, and he bolted, sprinting into the gap he had created, dodging past flaming foes ignited by his spell, and feeling the strands of the flux shimmering tightly all around him. He was home, now; the Steenborg was the centre of all the Empire’s might, the bastion of its greatest strength, and the martial power concentrated in this one place was probably greater than at any other spot in the physical world. Here, too, his fire was hot; the flux felt like a roaring river, and all he had to do was dip his hands –
– hands, so many hands –
– into it, to feel the power flowing through his fingers...to...to...
Hang on. There were dozens, hundreds of hands reaching for the flux all around him...how many other...
....like class, it felt like class...so many mages, all dipping into the well at once...
Momentarily distracted, he almost didn’t hear the flapping. For an instant he thought it was Valaista disobeying orders. Then he heard the thing’s breath.
He snapped a glance over his shoulder. The largest of the revenants – the tall, tattered thing that had appeared with the wights – had left the ground, and was soaring ponderously through the air towards him. The sight was chillingly grotesque; its wings, like its body, were little more than a twisted skeletal mass thinly covered in rotting, tattered scraps of flesh. Mouldy feathers fell from the sky; and droplets did, too, of some stinking, green-black pus. The ungainly horror crashed to the flagstones only a few paces behind him, hissing and gurgling in some insane parody of speech – words that rang more in his mind than in his ears.
Thanos froze momentarily. How could it know...?
No time. More of the oozing, stinking corruption bled from its frame, splashing the flagstones and some of its minions, causing them to cry out and shy away. No time. He eyed the distance to the nearest guards, realized that he was too far back, and took a couple of swift paces forward, descending the stairs to ensure that none of his countrymen would be caught in his next blast. Reaching into a pouch, he extracted the engraved elfstone and clenched it in his fist. Focussing his concentration, he gathered the strands of the flux, clenched them, bent them into the desired shape, and unleashed a hellish blast of flame, adding an explosive twist to the detonation for good measure.
Hotter than dragon’s fire, the burst roared outward, enveloping and obliterating a half-dozen of the wights and crashing into the angel of decay like a tsunami. For the briefest of moments, Thanos thought that the thing might be able to resist the spell...but then it threw up its clawed arms, roaring in rage, its rags and tattered flesh aflame. The torrent of force caught the creature and flung it backwards, smashing it to earth. Gouts of corruption splashed onto the smoking flagstones.
Elated as he always was when visiting destruction upon an enemy – especially a foul and profane one – Thanos was about to follow when a single, clear trumpet sounded an odd, staccato pattern. His fury-sodden brain recognized what it was just in time. He flung his arms up before his eyes.
A sudden, silver-white glare burst over the courtyard, washing out the Lantern, and bathing everything beneath in a dazzling, blinding glow.
Paska! Valaista mind-shrieked, dazzled by the sudden flare and broadcasting her shock loudly enough to make the humans on the parapet flinch. What was that?
“Brilliant fireball,” her new acquaintance explained curtly. “And that trumpet call meant ‘duck’, by the way.”
“Thank you,” she growled, blinking in a vain attempt to clear the spots before her eyes. “But why burst it in midair? It’s too high up to –”
“That wasn’t an attack. That was a signal.” The man brandished his metal wand. “It’s showtime.”
Valaista was about to ask another question, but was interrupted by a second trumpet call – this one a long, sustained silvery blast.
And all around the parapets, Fortress Steenborg erupted in a blaze of arcane light.
Thanos was unsurprised by the first half-dozen detonations that rocked the square. He nearly cried out when they enveloped as many friendly as enemy troops, but bit his tongue when he noticed that the Ekhani footmen, after bursting into flame and running around screaming horribly, simply fell to the flagstones...and winked out.
Not so the wights. Blast after blast of magical fire exploded among their ranks, setting dead flesh aflame, blowing bodies to flinders, scorching and consuming their tattered remains. The outraged howling was blood-curdling.
At the far end of the parade square, four enormously powerful explosions went off simultaneously, and Thanos saw the apocalyptic light and felt the tell-tale horsekick-to-the-chest of a meteor swarm spell.
He blinked, then grinned. It was good to be home.
He blinked, then grinned. It was good to be home.
To add to the enemy’s woes, a clatter announced the arrival of a wave of crossbow bolts. They didn’t do much harm – Thanos saw more than a few simply bounce off the tough flesh of his assailants – but they added a classical note to the cacophony, and they certainly distracted the wights.
He was more impressed by the sudden, overwhelming hail of forcedarts that thundered down from the parapets, slashing through the enemy ranks with unerring precision and smacking into the flagstones like unearthly hail. Someone, he realized, must have paraded every last apprentice for this fight, hoping to expose them to a little action. Thanos felt absurdly flattered. Individually, the missiles were unlikely to help; but falling in their hundreds, they were having an effect.
He was a little taken aback when what looked like a circular cloud of glinting fog sprang up, encircling him. Only ten feet away, the wall looked like gossamer smoke – but he could hear the hissing whine of the razor-edged forceblades that whirled and spun within it. Anything that tried to pass through the mist – in either direction – would be instantly cut to ribbons.
More fireballs burst all around him, their cumulative effect disorienting. A fire storm spell swept the square before him in a long line, catching a dozen wights, and nearly scorching him with its heat. He hoped his colleagues were taking their time to aim properly.
He found himself staring at the razor mist. Something about this particular spellwall seemed...what, familiar? He blinked against another blast.
No time for speculation. Through the mist, he could see the rotting, abominable angel gathering itself, climbing first to its knees, then to its clawed feet. A fireball burst full on the creature’s chest, but the ragged, hissing horror ignored it. Turning its bleak, burning gaze on Thanos it howled in outrage; then, bending its knees, it launched itself into the air, angling away from the square, taking off obliquely betwixt the tower and the cavalry barracks, clawing its way into the sky.
The warmage ground his teeth, clenching his fists in anger. No way to pursue; without the key the caster had used, he didn’t dare cross the barrier. The creature was forty paces away, and already fifty in the air. A lifetime’s experience made it instinctual. Slant range seventy paces minus, he told himself. Call it...two hundred feet even.
Taking careful aim, he crooked his fingers, hissed the words, and –
Valaista hissed between her fangs, and a pair of forcedarts burst from her spread foreclaws, streaking down into the courtyard and lancing into the back of one of the wights menacing the group of soldiers nearest the gatehouse. It felt ridiculous to be speaking and using gestures to cast spells, but that was what Thanos had taught her. It seemed disloyal, too, to be defending anyone other than her master; but he was nearly below her, and she had a poor view at best of the tower’s base. She had understood her new acquaintance’s directions immediately and implicitly. Someone else would be targeting the areas that she couldn’t see. They’re organized, she realized suddenly. And coordinated.
It wasn’t a defensive action. It was a trap. She wondered whether Thanos had realized what was going –
Crackling and snarling with horrific power, a brilliant, emerald-green lance shot up from the courtyard, smashing into the fleeing angel with an audible roar. The creature’s flight faltered for just an instant, but it recovered and continued flapping clumsily away. It was high above the gatehouse tower, now, and clawing for altitude – well out of range of any of her spells.
Mind your arcs. She turned her attention back to the courtyard and sent another burst of darts into one of the faltering wights. To her immense delight, it stumbled and went down. Her roar of triumph startled the crossbowman sharing the loophole with her, and his bolt went wild.
I’ll apologize later, she thought happily, scanning for another target.
“Damn it!” Thanos screamed. “It’s getting away! Drop this thing so I can move!”
Beside himself with rage, he watched the angel rise higher and higher, clawing the air with great, ungainly sweeps of its wings. All around, the thunderous cacophony of battle went on unabated. The slapping roar of detonations, the hissing crack of force-darts – and once, to his delighted astonishment, a roaring crash as a pillar of holy fire cascaded out of the sky, falling full on a trio of wights and smashing them into ash – all continued unabated, as his quarry climbed higher and higher.
At last, after what seemed an eternity, the razor-mist gave a peculiar sigh...and vanished into thin air. Was it too late? The warmage stepped forward; then, realizing that his target was flying faster than he could run, he barked a long-familiar spell, interweaving the words with a complex array of additional phrases. At the end of his incantation, a pair of gleaming, smoking points leapt from his outstretched hands, streaking through the air.
It was as if the corrupted angel could sense its doom coming. Twisting desperately in mid-air, it struggled to avoid the howling blast of the twin detonations. It couldn’t avoid them both. The arcane flame caught on its tattered, undead flesh like a First-Day firework, igniting its bones and even the pestilent ooze that ran from it like a rain of nausea. Flaring like a burning hayrick, the creature tumbled out of the sky, shrieking its hatred and defiance – until, like a shooting star, it crashed into the flagstones just beyond the gatehouse, scattering smoking debris hither and yon.
Thanos watched his late enemy tumble to earth. When he heard the echoing thud from beyond the gatehouse he nodded in satisfaction. Then he turned to help mop up the few remaining wights.
In the moments following the battle, a veritable tide of soldiers – real ones, this time – poured out of the four great gates and into the square. Interspersed among them were dozens of Vara’s annointed – the grey-robed, bare-headed, bare-footed priests of the Healing Hand. Some, unlike the bulk of their brethren, wore boots, light helmets and mail. Thanos recognized these as battle surgeons, and gave them a happy wave or a pat on the back, as the opportunity arose. He was surprised to see that instead of their usual packs of gauze, boiled lint and distilled wine, these bore silver pails.
Their purpose shortly became clear. As he watched, the priests dipped and swung, plying the device known throughout the Empire as “the Abbot’s Backscratcher” – a morningstar with a hollow reservoir built into the haft, that splashed a fine mist of blessed water onto anything the wielder struck. Moving in carefully coordinated sweeps, the priests anointed each of the fallen enemy corpses. Soon the parade ground was filled with the hissing, sizzling sound of holy water scorching undead flesh. Fine clouds of putrid mist filled the air.
The warmage grinned. It was good to be back with the Army again. Smells like...like victory, he thought.
After taking several moments to reassure himself that nothing else was moving, Thanos pulled himself together, wiggling his fingers to loosen them and tucking Annistara’s spellstone back into his pouch. Squaring his shoulders, he set a course for the main gate of the Steenborg. As he began mounting the steps, he was unsurprised to see a number of faces – some unfamiliar, some more than familiar – among the crowd that had issued from the sally ports. They seemed to be waiting for him. None of them looked especially happy to see him.
The warmage sighed. There was a black-haired woman among them that he recognized instantly, who looked as if she had a good deal to say to him. He ignored her. Deal with the grumpiest first.
Sorting them out by eye, he altered his trajectory to head for a tall, gaunt, clean-shaven fellow. White hair and a scarred face topped heavy practice armour of boiled leather and bronze plates. Sliding to a halt, Thanos saluted. “General.”
“Forgot how we run ambushes, eh?” the older man glowered. His name was Din Hauvvak. He had been a legate for more than twenty years, had taught Thanos defensive tactics at the academy, and had been the Deputy Vendicar – Wartack’s right-hand man – when Thanos, Karrick and Xeros had left Norkhan some months before.
Thanos ground his teeth. “I’d expected an extra passenger or two. I didn’t expect...that.” He nodded back at the parade square. “Nicely done, by the way. Especially the meteor swarm.”
“That was Barry,” Hauvvak shrugged. When Thanos looked blank, he added, “That’s right, you haven’t met him yet. Berengar of Vesterskov. New Secretary and Loremaster to the Council of Steel. Good man.” He winked. “Always got his nose in a book. You’ll like him.”
“I like anybody who burns that much mana keeping me safe,” Thanos laughed.
“Anything worth doing is worth overdoing,” Hauvvak agreed. “Nice job yourself on that...whatever the hells it was.” He shuddered. “That was the worst incursion we’ve had yet.”
He paused, then added in lower tones, “Can we be serious for a moment?”
“Of course,” the warmage replied guardedly.
“I’m a little concerned by your reactions out there,” the general said carefully. “You fought like you were alone.”
Thanos bit his lip. His old teacher had a point. “I’ve gotten used to being alone,” he acknowledged carefully, “at least as far as arcane support goes. I didn’t know what to expect, either in terms of the enemy that might come through with us, or in terms of support at this end.”
“The former, I’ll stipulate,” Hauvvak replied. “But the latter...you know how we do business, old friend. You warned us of a hot arrival, and you should’ve realized that we’d prepare a hot reception for any strap-hangers you managed to bring along.”
Thanos briefly considered arguing, but decided that it was pointless. How could he possibly describe the experience of fighting as a lone mage to someone who had only ever fought in huge, regular formations? “I guess the last few months have changed my style a little,” he said as blandly as he could.
“This is why we don’t like officers adventuring, you know,” Hauvvak groused. “You learn bad habits, and we have to beat them out of you before you teach’em to the wetties.”
The warmage sighed heavily. “Are you going to keep pissing on me, or are you going to welcome me home?” he asked, extending his hand.
Scar-face snorted. Ignoring the proffered hand, he swept Thanos into a brief bear-hug. Then he shoved him away and swatted him gently on the head. “Welcome home, Colonel. And congratulations, by the way.”
“Thank you, General,” Thanos replied equally formally. “Nice to be back.”
“Hmmph. Wait a little before you say that,” Hauvvak snorted. “Folks upstairs want to see you. Percelex.”
“ ‘Folks’? Not the big guy?” the warmage frowned.
Hauvvak shook his head. “He’s out west, spying out the land. Totally covert; no eyes, no ears, no tongue. Something to do with a report we got a few months back from the south end of the Vale. Even if he flies, he won’t be back for a few weeks. And there’re no transtations out there.”
The warmage started. “Still? I thought we were trying to build one! South of the Tamal Krak, or thereabouts?”
“Didn’t work,” Hauvvak shrugged. “The Vale’s still too...how d’you lot put it? ‘Perturbed’?”
“Perturbatus,” Thanos nodded. “Means the flux’s all a-roil.” He glanced around the square. “So...no casualties at all?” That made him feel a good deal better.
“None,” Hauvvak replied. “You think I’m fool enough to put live footmen into a freefire zone? Especially when I’m planning on using it as a training opportunity for the wetties?” He chuckled without humour. “You were the only thing breathing out there, dummy.”
“Well,” the man amended instantly, before Thanos could retort, “you, and that dragon. Got an explanation for her?”
“Long or short version?” Thanos grumped.
“Short. We’ve got to get upstairs.” He took Thanos by the elbow and led him toward the gates. The remainder of the hangers-on followed behind.
“She’s my apprentice,” Thanos said as they walked.
“Didn’t recognize the breed.”
“Iron dragon,” Thanos replied. “Met her parents outside Elder Delvin. We did each other a good turn. They asked, and I felt obliged to...to...”
“Say no more.” Hauvvak nodded approvingly. “She’s prettier than Xeros, anyway. More useful in a fight, too, I’ll bet.”
“She can hold her own, in battle anyway,” the warmage shrugged. Then he frowned. “How is Xeros?”
“Busy,” Hauvvak replied. “We all are. He’s back at your home station in Whitefields. Got’im teaching classes in personal support. He specializes in survival techniques. He'll be heading out on recce before too long.”
Thanos shook his head in wonder. “Well, Vara knows he’s got first-hand experience.”
“That was my thought.”
At the top of the stairs, they turned around and surveyed the carnage. The undead – both those set alight by arcane fire, and those ignited by the priests – were still burning. Palls of greasy, horrid smoke mounted into the morning sky.
“So that was all illusion out there, then?” Thanos asked.
“Bet your ass,” Hauvvak nodded. They paused at the gate doors. Hauvvak put his hand to the bronze. After a brief interval, Thanos heard the internal mechanism clatter to life, and felt the low, grinding vibration of the bars being withdrawn.
While they waited, the warmage turned to the black-haired woman that he had noticed earlier. “That was your doing, I suppose? The razor mist, I mean.”
The woman he addressed was half a head shorter than him – a slender, serious-looking girl in an elegant dress. Her skin tone, eyes and figure bespoke her human origins, but her hair – long, midnight black and glimmeringly alive – suggested a hint of the Third House in her ancestry. There was, Thanos knew, more than a hint; though she looked twenty, she was over forty. Her raven familiar, he recalled with a snort, was older than twenty. “You’re welcome,” she sniffed.
“You’re the best, Shory,” Thanos said. For good measure, he bowed.
“I know. I’m brilliant. I did the shades, too.” She made a show of examining her nails. “Where’s Karrick?”
“Left him in Starmeadow.”
“You left –” The woman looked startled, then angry. “You knew you were leaping into a potential combat situation, and you left your scutator behind?”
“I did bring a dragon,” Thanos said, wondering how he had managed to end up on the defensive again.
“A little one!” the woman – Shory – exclaimed. “Who you immediately sent out of the fight!”
“She’s...you don’t...I can’t afford to...gah!” the warmage began heatedly before faltering to an ignominious halt. He stopped himself and took a deep breath. Nobody ever won an argument with Shory.
The woman watched him closely, one shapely eyebrow – narrow and arched, another artefact of her elven forebear – cocked in amusement. “Giving up so soon?”
“The only way to win against you is not to fight,” Thanos grumped.
“That’s right.” Shory reached up and patted his cheek. “If you were as smart as I am, you’d’ve brought Karrick, I’d be arguing with him right now.” The pat turned into a gentle slap. “And you’d be off the hook.”
Thanos grasped the woman’s tiny wrist and moved her hand slowly away from his face. “Something else you need to know about adventuring,” he grated, “is that it makes me very, very cranky. And just lately I’ve had my fill of pretty, overly clever ladies.”
Shory’s eyes took on a silvery glint. She looked as though she were about to offer a retort; but something she saw in Thanos’ own, very direct gaze must have dissuaded her. Her scowl became a pout. “The idiot didn’t even write to me,” she complained.
Thanos barked a laugh. “Karrick? Write?” He shook his head in wonder.
“Don’t tell me he’s been too busy!” the woman said dangerously.
“Well, he has been a little occupied with –”
A sudden, thunderous flurry of wing-beats announced Valaista’s arrival. Her claws clattered on the marble flagstones just as the last of the gate bars thudded back and the massive door began to swing open. Without waiting for orders or an invitation, she shifted swiftly back into her Kindred form. A moment later, all of the men in her immediate vicinity were grinning.
Thanos indicated the party surrounding him with a wave. “Valaista, this is General Din Hauvvak, Second-in-Command of the Imperial Army, and one of my old teachers. Din, may I present Valaistanaulata, first of the first clutch of Gloriana Ferrous of Elder Delvin, and her mate Anachromin Ferrous, the current Iron Speaker.”
“Charmed,” Hauvvak said automatically. Thanos knew that his old instructor was taken aback by the cascade of names and titles, but a lifetime of diplomacy and command enabled the fellow to cover his shock. He held out his hand, and Valaista, after a nod from Thanos, took it. Instead of shaking it, Hauvvak bowed over it like a courtier. “Welcome to Norkhan, Beauteous Fang,” he added, straightening up.
Valaista turned wide eyes on Thanos.
“We don’t see a lot of dragons in the Empire,” the warmage said without expression. “And Din likes to be old-fashioned when occasion arises.”
The dragon-girl turned back to Hauvvak, one eyebrow cocked. “How do you address male dragons?”
“ ‘Valiant Fang’,” Hauvvak replied. “By the way,” he added, glancing at Thanos, “I’m no longer the deputy. I resigned a few months back. Varos Kald’s got my chair. I took up my old post as Master of Aspirants.”
“May Holy Vara help the wetties, then,” Thanos chuckled. He nodded at the black-haired woman, continuing with the introductions. “Valaista, this is Shory Nestra, one of the more talented illusionists at the Academy.”
“Head of the Department of Deception, actually,” the woman corrected him stiffly. “As of First-Day.” She offered Valaista a chilly nod.
“Really?” Thanos exclaimed. “Congratulations!” To Valaista, he added, “She’s one of Karrick’s...er...”
Shory watched him search for the right word, then supplied it herself. “ ‘Old friends’. Let’s leave it at that, shall we?”
Valaista blinked. “You don’t look that old,” the dragon-girl said, slightly confused.
“We’re not really ‘friends’, either,” the black-haired woman snorted contemptuously.
Valaista, Thanos noted, wisely decided not to rise to that particular bait. She's learning, he thought. At Hauvvak’s urging, they moved into the forecourt of the Steenborg. Shory didn’t take her eyes off of the tall, silver-haired dragon-girl. As they walked, the black-haired woman asked, “So...how do you know Karrick?”
“He’s been teaching me to wield his blade,” Valaista replied easily, glancing around with immense interest at the architecture. She hadn’t seen anything like it since leaving the Deeprealm. “I’m getting really good at it.”
Shory’s right eye began to twitch. “Oh, really?” she muttered.
“Hmm, yes,” the dragon-girl nodded, captivated by the beauty and scope of the stonework. “I like it a lot better than the elven ones I’ve handled. Stiffer, heavier...bigger. A lot bigger.” She made a fist, leaving a space where a hilt might go. “It fits me perfectly. Feels...I don’t know. Just right.”
Shory made a sound a little like an ungreased cartwheel.
A few paces ahead, Hauvvak shot Thanos a wide-eyed glance. “Is...is she talking about what I think she’s –”
“Karrick’s teaching her swordplay,” Thanos whispered, desperately trying to stifle a chortle and sounding strangled as a result. “And no, that’s not a euphemism. Don’t let the shape fool you; she’s actually a three-month wyrmling. It’ll be a century or so before she rises to mate.” He shook his head. “In the meantime, it’s been loads of fun.”
Hauvvak nodded, looking relieved. Then he grinned. “You gonna tell Shory?”
Thanos shook his head. “Don’t be silly. She’s brilliant, remember? I’m sure she’ll figure it out.”