This is the sequel to The Catacombs of Dread.
Two years previously...
Hasina Styrke, daughter of Armand, Lord of House Styrke, turned sixteen. As was tradition, she had her Telling; a form of fortune-telling performed by a Teller. She interpreted her results to mean that she would slay Deathbringer. Had others been allowed to talk about their Telling, she might have realised she had worked it out far too easily.
She set off for Deathbringer's Citadel with her friend Arjuna. When passing through Dread Forest, they were ambushed by Hyaeners, but survived, and then attacked by Ogros when they stumbled upon their house. However, just before the Ogros could finish them off, a Unicorn appeared, killing the Ogro and healing Hasina and Arjuna.
They reached the base of the citadel, to find a young man already standing there. Holding him at knifepoint, they found out he was Trey Exanus, a bounty hunter from the north, and he had come here with the last of the Titan Dragons, Titanus. However, Titanus had a history with Deathbringer, and had gone on ahead to slay him.
The three of them worked together to climb the Citadel. They slew ogres, called Sluha, along the way, though Hasina lost her sword and Trey's was bent.
At the top of the Citadel lay Deathbringer's two guards, larger ogres called Malus. They managed to kill both of them, though Trey was badly injured and knocked out. Hasina and Arjuna bandaged his wounds and left him lying in an alcove where the Malus had hidden.
They had gone up to the final floor, just in time to see Deathbringer incinerate Titanus with an enormous blast of flame. Their combat against Deathbringer was quick, and Arjuna was killed. However, before, Hasina noticed five gleaming orbs that had been concealed under Deathbringer's wings; eggs. Trey stumbled to the top floor, and Hasina told him Titanus' fate, shortly before Deathbringer blasted him with flame, apparently killing him too.
Deathbringer then opened a hole in the citadel and left to destroy House Styrke. Hasina brought Trey back to life by 'giving him some of her air', and they were about to begin the long trek down the Citadel, when Trey got a thought-message from Titanus. He had survived, and teleported to the faraway realm of Xenox. However, he was still able to make a hole in the Citadel wall and summon a Rage Dragon to fly them back to House Styrke, though it left him weak.
When they arrived, Deathbringer was already attacking House Styrke. The Rage Dragon was killed, and then, Minister Eldred, the most boring man in the castle, was revealed to be a Dragonslayer Knight, though his attempts failed. Deathbringer killed Trey again, but then returned to his Citadel.
As a Dragonslayer Knight, Eldred could resurrect people, and managed to do so with Trey. Armand Styrke came out, and had Minister Eldred locked up.
Drabardi had not been seen since the attack, and was actually hiding in the Telling chamber. When Hasina found her, she tried to kill Hasina, but Hasina shattered the crystal ball, and then Trey came down and restrained Drabardi. Armand had her locked up too.
The next day, Armand conducted an interrogation of them. Minister Eldred's grandfather had been the only Dragonslayer Knight to survive when Deathbringer wiped out the Order, and both his father and him had inherited the gift. He had planned to take control of the castle and use its troops to make a new Order, so Drabardi had agreed to give Hasina a fake Telling to get rid of her.
Armand used his limited magical ability to teleport the pair of them away when Drabardi tried to kill them. Hasina then went to help rebuild destroyed houses, with Trey.
Meanwhile, Deathbringer's eggs had hatched in the citadel. Each was a metre long, and four looked identical to him, while the fifth had emerald-green scales and white eyes. He took them out on their first hunting mission, teaching them to fly and the basics of hunting. They made one kill, then returned to the Citadel, where Deathbringer fed them Sluha.
Hasina spotted Deathbringer flying on the horizon with five smaller shapes around him. She realised they were his children, and went to tell Armand about them, as she had forgotten. Armand sent three messengers to the South, East and West, and asked Hasina to see if Trey would return to the north. The three messengers were killed by Deathbringer's children, and the panicked horses returned.
Armand sent another three messengers, who this time gave the Citadel a wide berth. Trey was willing to return to the north, and Hasina said her goodbyes to him. Then, as soon as he left, Deathbringer attacked the village again, this time with his children at his side.
Deathbringer tore apart buildings, breathed great blasts of flame and slaughtered those in the open, as Hasina rushed into the castle. Deathbringer flew straight into it, smashing down the front wall. Hasina found her father, who grabbed the dragonscale shield from the armoury (which was promptly destroyed) and joined her on his horse. They rode out of the castle, but one of Deathbringer's children attacked Armand before flying off. He was fatally wounded, and knew he wouldn't make it.
He gave Hasina the dragonscale shield, and ordered her to run, and save whoever she could. Hasina knew she couldn't save anyone, so simply bolted. An arrow, coming from someone in House Styrke, struck her horse, and before long, it collapsed, though by then House Styrke was just a tower of smoke on the horizon.
Hasina walked north, keeping to the coast, hoping to stumble upon a small village in the west where she could stay. On the way, she passed the entrance to a tunnel system, which she marked on a rough map of Emiria she had carved on a piece of bark.
A week later, she reached House Solus, just before dark. Two guards attempted to bind her, but the heir to the House, Huo Lyall, ordered that she would be allowed to rest in the spare room at Solus Spire, the 'castle', until tomorrow.
Next morning, she saw the Lord of the house, Intisara Miles, and explained what had happened to House Styrke. He said she could stay in Solus Spire for the time being, to the displeasure of the guards. Hasina then explained to him about the tunnel system, and asked for a horse by which she could return to the tunnels and explore. Intisara agreed.
While saddling her horse, Huo came along, and asked to travel with her. Reluctantly at first, Hasina accepted, but before they left, Huo insisted on introducing her to Tectia, a Rage Dragon who's family had been guarding House Solus since its founding. They had a quick conversation, then left for the tunnel system.
Hasina correctly guessed it was the Dread Catacombs, and they explored, slaying hideous Wurms and insectoid monsters along the way. They eventually reached the final chamber, where Dreadfire, a malicious Rage Dragon that Deathbringer had supposedly killed, lay. There was a long and fierce fight, in which the dragonscale shield was broken. Hasina then killed Dreadfire, at the cost of her own life.
However, Tectia arrived in the cavern soon after, and used the resurrection spell to bring her back to life. They returned to the surface, then Tectia heard a foghorn that meant House Solus was in danger. They flew for twenty minutes, then Tectia teleported the rest of the way, as she was part Laji and possibly part Titan Dragon.
The House was under attack from Green Death, Deathbringer's green child. Between Tectia, Hasina and Huo, they drove it off, though the village was badly damaged and Tectia was wounded. Hasina saw Tectia next morning, and received a valuable sword, shield and armour, made of the light, strong and rare mineral Meteorite.
Afterwards, Huo proposed to Hasina, though she said she needed more time to think. She learned of a Rage Dragon legend from Tectia, that said she would be the hero to defeat Deathbringer. Tectia explained this destiny had been hidden too deep for Drabardi's crystal ball to see.
In two years, when Deathbringer's children were full grown, that was when Hasina was supposed to attack. Tectia agreed to ride her into battle, and the people of House Solus formed the basis of Hasina's 'army'. However, when Hasina returned to the village again, Intisara had grave news.
Emiria was at war.
One and a half years previously...
Hasina had lived a peaceful life in House Solus for almost six months now. Though the war was raging across Emiria, they had remained mostly out of the crossfire, and Tectia was there for when she was needed. Two months ago, Huo had proposed again, and this time, Hasina gladly accepted. The official ceremony was to take place next month.
She was helping the villagers with their farms one day, when one of their riders, who had been out on a scouting mission, rushed back, out of breath. He slowed the horse, and dismounted hastily, before rushing for Solus Spire. Intrigued, Hasina followed him.
When she arrived at the top floor, he was already in conversation with Intisara, the Lord of the house.
"Drake South and fifty armed men are coming towards the village."
"But why? What could they want?"
"It may be to do with Deathbringer, and with Hasina."
Hasina walked in at this point, and the rider stopped talking.
"Do not worry," Intisara said, "This is only Hasina."
Then, to Hasina, he said, "The son of the King of the South is on his way to this house, most likely for information about or from you. To speak politely, he is not the nicest person you could meet, and I would suggest you hide."
"There's a basement under Solus Spire. Few people know of it, and certainly not him."
"I shall hide under there then."
"Good. Now hurry. We have no time to waste."
They went to the bottom floor, and Intisara prised open the well-concealed trap door. Hasina slipped inside, and was handed a torch, before they closed the trap door.
Minutes later, Drake and the fifty house guard arrived. They were welcomed, despite Drake's nature, but Drake quickly got to the point.
"Where is the girl?" he snapped.
"Which girl?" Intisara asked.
"The one from House Styrke!"
"I honestly don't know who you're talking about."
Above them, a brick-red, small dragon flapped its wings and flew off, south-east.
"Father, I have news," the child said, as he returned.
"WHAT NEWS IS THIS?"
"A man called Drake South is asking after the girl from House Styrke."
"THE KING OF THE SOUTH DARES MEDDLE IN BUSINESS THAT ISN'T HIS? I SHALL TEACH HIM A LESSON! YOU SHALL STAY HERE. THIS TIME, I SHALL COME IN PERSON."
An enormous shadow suddenly fell over Drake and his men. The people of House Solus looked up.
"No..." Huo said weakly.
The shape and colouration was unmistakeable. Deathbringer had arrived.
He breathed a great blast of flame, incinerating at least ten of the guards. His tail whipped round, smashing into horses and shattered their ribcages. About fifteen men and Drake remained mounted, and they fired their arrows, while one lobbed a spear. Deathbringer laughed as the weapons bounced uselessly off his scales.
"THIS IS THE PRICE FOR MEDDLING WITH BUSINESS THAT ISN'T YOURS!" Deathbringer roared, snatching up three horses and riders in one giant paw, and crushing them.
Even Drake South, who would normally never flee a battle, saw that this was hopeless.
"Flee!" he ordered. "Flee!"
The men fled, back towards southern territory. Deathbringer kept pace easily, laughing mirthlessly as he picked off the riders, one by one. When they reached the south, only Drake and two men survived. They forced their stallions to go faster, but Deathbringer increased his speed easily. With balls of flame, he killed the last two guards, but gave up the chase once Drake passed his Citadel.
"BRING NEWS OF YOUR DEFEAT TO THE KING, FEEBLE CREATURE. NONE CAN DEFEAT ME!"
Deathbringer opened the hole in the Citadel, and flew back in, where his children were gorging themselves on a Sluha carcass. Their jaws were covered in black blood.
Huo got Hasina out of Solus Spire's basement, and explained what had happened.
"Is there any damage to the village?"
"See for yourself."
While breathing fire at Drake's guard, Deathbringer had destroyed the gates, and the nearest two houses. other villagers were already looking inside the ruins. The first house yielded two survivors and one dead; the other yielded all four dead.
"I'm sorry," Hasina said.
"Sorry for what? How is this your fault?"
"Green Death was after me the first time. Drake South was after me, so Deathbringer came after him. If I'd settled down somewhere else, none of this would ever have happened to you."
Huo was silent for a minute. "Well, I can't say that's not true, but you can still stay here, Hasina. We can deal this. Besides, Emiria is still at war. If you attempted to go anywhere, you'd probably become prisoner or be killed."
"I guess you're right. I just don't want anyone else to die because of me."
"No-one will," Huo reassured her.
A gust of wind blew through Tectia's cavern. She got to her feet, to see Ragefang, her mate, stroll in.
"I have grave news," he said.
"About the war?" Tectia asked.
"Ah. We had best go and see Hasina then. You can tell us both.
"Yes. I shall."
As the two of them entered the village, through the rebuilt gates, they found a crowd of people already there, as if they had seen them coming. Hasina and Huo weren't among them.
"Where are Hasina and Huo?" Tectia asked.
"At the Spire," someone in the crowd replied.
Tectia and Ragefang gently pushed through the crowd, and went to the Spire. Obviously, they could not fit in, but Nera was waiting just outside the door.
Nera was a feral child that Hasina had discovered on one of her trips outside of House Solus. She was fifteen years old now, and had spent the first fourteen years of her life being raised by wolves. As such, she was still learning the more complex attributes of speech and writing.
"We would like to see Hasina," Tectia said to her.
"I'll go and get her," Nera said, disappearing inside the Spire. She returned a minute or two later, Hasina and Huo following.
"We have news," Ragefang said.
"What sort of news?" Hasina asked.
"You see, we appear to have made an error interpreting the prophecy," Ragefang continued. Even Tectia looked puzzled now.
"Deathbringer's 'army' is not just his children. There are others, flocking from far and wide to serve him. Shadowlings."
"What are Shadowlings?" Hasina asked.
"Black dragons, larger than me or Ragefang," Tectia explained. "They have black scales and purple wings, and breathe dark fire like Deathbringer. There have been few encounters, but all have been destructive. However, they do have a weak spot - there are no scales on their stomachs."
"So we could have fought him two years ago?" Huo asked.
"Well, yes," Tectia admitted sheepishly.
"However, if he is gathering an army, now is the time to strike," Ragefang said. "We don't know how many Shadowlings there are, but with that sort of army, he could destroy Emiria."
"But we can't fight him alone! And Emiria is at war! We'll never get them to co-operate!" Hasina protested.
"This was no doubt all part of Deathbringer's grand scheme."
"Fine then," Hasina said. "Time to bring death to the deathbringer."
Arin Batillus rode into House Solus upon his horse, seeming rather out of breath. He was an Alfa, who had been separated from his group during a guerilla war against the Orcs, and had got lost and ended up in House Solus.
"I have bad news," he panted.
"So do we," Ragefang replied.
"Then maybe we should share."
Hasina, Tectia and Ragefang filled Arin in about the army of Shadowlings. Arin suddenly went white, and Hasina knew that the Shadowling army alone couldn't have caused that.
"What is it?"
"The West and the South are about to fight an enormous battle on the southern border. There will be thousands of troops on each side. If the Shadowlings attack then..."
"It'll be a slaughter," Hasina finished.
"At least these Shadowlings have a weak spot," Huo said. "That's more than Deathbringer and his kids have."
"We've got to try and stop them," Hasina said. "Tectia, Ragefang, do you think you could carry more than one person each?"
"I can manage three," Ragefang said.
"I can manage two," Tectia added.
"Tectia, you can take me and Huo. Ragefang, you can take Evan, Nera, and Taika."
Evan Asmens was a western solider who had joined the army when war broke out, but quickly found it too gory and fled, ending up in House Solus. Taika Pyora was a mage, whose parents had been killed by bandits before she could use her magic power to fend them off. She had then sought to evade them, ending up in House Solus.
"There is no point in this," Ragefang objected. "We cannot kill enough Shadowlings in time to divert the fate of the two armies. If they were united, they would perhaps stand a chance."
"But they're not!" Hasina yelled. "It's a stupid war over nothing! People are dying for no reason other than the greed of the stupid people who call themselves kings! If I could end it, I would!"
"Here's an opportunity to end it," Ragefang replied simply. "Let Deathbringer wipe out the combatants."
"Who's side are you on?"
"I met that hermit dragon once. Rho-nygg. He said dragons shouldn't mess in the affairs of humans. Perhaps he was right."
There was a sudden smash as something knocked down a pair of huts at the other end of the village. Hasina, Huo, Nera and Arin ran towards the sound, while Tectia and Ragefang lumbered behind them, the size of the village too small for them really.
A Shadowling loomed over the house. It spotted Hasina and her friends coming, and blasted them with dark fire. It just missed, but Hasina could tell this battle would be tough. Their scales were virtually impenetrable, and on the ground it would be difficult to reach their underbelly.
The Shadowling smashed down a few more houses to make room for it in the village. It gave no thought for the people that might be living in the houses as it knocked them down.
Hasina drew her bow and launched an arrow at the Shadowling, which destroyed it with a blast of dark fire.
"What are we gonna do?" Nera asked.
"Kill it!" came a voice from above.
Ragefang smashed down onto the Shadowling, crushing it into the ground. The Shadowling quickly turned, slashing at Ragefang's belly and cracking the scales, forcing him to retreat. The Shadowling blasted Ragefang with dark fire, and in the village, Ragefang could not dodge the blast.
Hasina suddenly noticed a small shape underneath the Shadowling; it was Arin. He raised his sword, and thrust it upwards, straight into the Shadowling's belly. It roared in pain, slashing backwards with one arm. Its forearm smashing into Arin, knocking him backwards and winding him, but the claws hadn't connected. Taking advantage of the distraction, Ragefang grabbed the Shadowling's neck in his paws, and wrenched it round, crushing the life out of the Shadowling.
The Shadowling struck Ragefang in the neck, but Ragefang hung on, ripping scars in the underside of the Shadowling's neck. Eventually, its movement became less frantic, until its body went limp and Ragefang dropped it to the floor. Ragefang then collapsed himself, dark fire still licking at his scales. Unexpectedly, Tectia came along, and bathed Ragefang in regular flame.
"What did you do that for?"
"It neutralises the dark fire. It is the only known cure, which is why you must endeavour to avoid it. Our scales are fireproof, so it is a sensible cure. For you..."
"Yeah, I know."
Ragefang got to his feet again, despite his wounds. "There," he spat. "We've killed a Shadowling. Now you appreciate how difficult it is, perhaps you'll allow us to leave the rest to slaughter the human armies to the south."
Hasina had to admit, they had no chance against a Shadowling army. But they could at least try.
"No," Hasina said firmly. "I'm not giving up."
"Then I quit," Ragefang spat. "I am not prepared to die for humans who do nothing but destroy this fertile country. I shall join the ranks of those who wish for the humans to be destroyed."
With two powerful wingbeats, and disregard for the chaos the draught caused, Ragefang took to the air and headed south. Tectia was horrified. She nearly took off herself, but Hasina restrained her.
"But he'll get killed! Deathbringer hates human and dragonkind alike!"
"I know, but rushing in won't help. We can get him back, I'm sure of it. We just need a plan."
Tectia sighed. "You're right. And if he won't return, I guess he deserves it. He's a traitor."
Soon, Deathbringer's Citadel loomed over Ragefang. There were Shadowlings swarming over the outside; clinging to every available ledge, crack, even each other. Two of them detached from the citadel and launched themselves at Ragefang.
"Halt!" he cried, with as much authority as he could muster. "I come to serve the Shadowlord!"
He had deduced that Shadowlings probably referred to Deathbringer as the Shadowlord, so they would understand and perhaps believe him better if he used that title.
"You are a spy," one hissed in a serpentine voice. "The Shadowlord wants you dead!"
They launched themselves at Ragefang. One flew straight past him, raking its talons along his flank and leaving three large gashes. Ragefang lashed out with his tail, striking the Shadowling in the neck and knocking it off-balance. The other Shadowling passed overhead Ragefang, kicking his head as it flew over. Ragefang turned again to face them, but one Shadowling was already under him, and slammed its forward-pointing spikes into his belly scales, cracking them and winding him.
The other Shadowling struck him on the neck, sending him into a wild spin. The Shadowling's jaws clamped shut around Ragefang's tail. He howled in pain, trying to wrench it out of the Shadowling's grasp to no avail. The other Shadowling blasted him with dark fire, and Ragefang started to feel weak. As it flew over his head, smacking him twice, his vision started to fade.
He had failed. He had not joined Deathbringer's ranks.
The Shadowling flew into his flank, claws outstretched and jaws open. It made a huge wound, and stars danced before his vision. He was vaguely away of a clawed hand slicing towards his eyes, and then he blacked out.
Tectia returned alone from her third scouting flight.
"I cannot find him. He is lost," she said sadly.
Hasina sat down dismally. They had not even started the war against Deathbringer, and already their strongest warrior was dead or missing. Or both.
She heard the sound of horse's hooves, and looked up to see Evan riding in.
"I entered the camp as a western soldier," he said. "Both the western and southern armies are camping either side of the border for the night, and they will battle tomorrow."
"So the question is whether the Shadowlings will attack tonight, when they're asleep, or tomorrow, when they're busy fighting each other."
"Yes," Evan agreed, sighing.
"If we don't know," Nera said, walking over from where she had been listening, "Then surely we need to act tonight."
"I know, but, I mean, look at us. Evan is about the only one who would have any luck getting into the camp unquestioned."
"Then what do we do?"
"I just don't know. The only thing I do know is we can't stand around and let them get slaughtered."
Hasina was at a complete loss of what to do. She decided that they would make a move tomorrow, as she was hoping Deathbringer's Shadowlings would want to sow mayhem while they attack, so would do it when the battle was midway through.
She slept lightly and uneasily that night, tossing and turning in her bed in Solus Spire. Since she and Huo had married, she had stayed there, and given her hut to Taika. More huts had been constructed for the others.
Eventually, she was able to get to sleep, though it was a dream-filled one.
"You cannot hope to defy me!" Deathbringer roared. "I am soon to be lord of all things!"
"There's more to the World than Emiria, you know," Hasina replied simply.
"My army of Shadowlings shall conquer all. We shall surpass the Gods in power!"
"Not if I have anything to do with it."
"You don't. You will die now!"
Deathbringer launched a jet of flame at Hasina. The flames completely blinded her, but she felt no pain. Deathbringer's claws appeared through the smoke, and they slammed into her, knocking her to the ground and leaving three deep scars. Her vision went black.
Hasina woke, sweating and panting, lying on her back on the floor. Light was already streaming through the window. She was late.
She got to her feet, and quickly dressed. She left her room and went downstairs, and outside the building. Many of her friends were already outside, helping the others with their farms. As usual, Nera was hiding behind one of the houses.
"Why do you always hide behind there?" Hasina asked.
"I've nothing else to do. The villagers don't seem to want my help."
"Hmm. OK," Hasina said. She also suspected Nera's upbringing had something to do with both this habit, and the reason the villagers didn't want her help.
"Are we going to stop the Shadowlings now?" Nera asked, making Hasina smile. Nera was still very naive, despite the fact she'd been with humans for a year. She seemed to believe everything always turned out already, and Hasina was willing to tell her otherwise. Not yet.
"We're going to try," Hasina said.
At that moment, Evan rode back into the village. "We're too late," he panted.
Hasina rushed over to him. "What do you mean we're too late?"
"The south and the west are already fighting."
"What about the Shadowlings?"
"There was a black-and-purple cloud on the southern horizon," Evan replied grimly.
"This is going to be a slaughter," Hasina realised.
"Yep. A complete slaughter."
Hidden amidst the black cloud of Shadowlings was one of Deathbringer's children, now almost as large as Deathbringer himself. The armies were in their sights; at least five thousand soldiers between them. This would be a bloodbath, and him and Shadowlings knew it.
The cloud broke up as the Shadowling swarm descended. There were cries of shock, horror and pain from men below.
Shadowlings blasted the ground with dark fire. They slashed out with their claws, tearing open humans and horses alike. Humans desperately fought back with swords, spears and arrows, but with no knowledge of the Shadowlings, most shots went wide of their weak spot.
One Shadowling landed amidst a field of corpses, to see five men on horses charging towards it, spears pointed ahead. With leisurely speed, it blasted them with dark fire. The men fell from the horses, dying, and while the horses reared up, ran for a bit, then collapsed to die.
As it took to the air again, it grabbed a horse in its claws, hauling it into the air and then dropping it from a great height onto a group of surviving humans. The entire battleground was ablaze with dark fire. The ground was soaked with blood, and corpses were littered everywhere. None of the corpses were Shadowlings, though a few had sustained minor injuries.
A Shadowling grabbed a horse's head in its rear paws, and tossed it into another knight and horse. It then blasted them with dark fire to ensure they were dead. A fireball bounced off its flank; clearly there was a wizard amongst the survivors. It blasted dark fire in a wide arc, and spotted a human just out of its range; the human might have used a magical barrier to keep himself safe.
It dived for him, and felt its talons sink into his flesh. It dragged the human along the floor, raking it through discarded swords and spearheads, before dropping it and flying on.
As it rose and scanned the battleground, it saw no survivors. The forces, over five thousand troops in all, had been eliminated. One Shadowling corpse lay among them, brought down by a lucky shot from a spear.
Deathbringer's child spoke to the Shadowlings.
"OUR JOB IS DONE HERE! LET THIS BE A SHOW OF OUR POWER TO THE KINGS WHO THESE PEOPLE BELONG TO. WE RETURN TO THE CITADEL NOW!"
With that, the black cloud left the battleground, heading south again.
Hasina arrived at the battleground the next day. It had been a complete massacre. She could see thousands dead, far too many to count, and just one dead Shadowling. For the first time, the scale of it all dawned on Hasina. The 'army' back at House Solus stood no chance. They could barely managed one Shadowling. This army had been slaughtered by thousands, at least.
Hasina could only see one outcome for the war. And that was Deathbringer's victory.
"EVERY LORD HAS HIS CASTLE," Deathbringer proclaimed, "AND MORE SHADOWLINGS FLOCK BY THE MINUTE. I SHALL CREATE EACH OF YOU A CITADEL."
Deathbringer and his children flew long and fast into western territory. Deathbringer chose a spot near a small house whose name he didn't know and didn't want to. Calling upon his strongest magic, Deathbringer thrust a stone spire up from the ground, a mini-mountain a kilometre high. He dropped gently to the ground, the effort straining even on him.
"THIS CITADEL SHALL BE YOURS," he said, gesturing to one of his children.
He flew to the east with his other four children, and made a citadel in the desert. He flew to the north, and made a citadel north of Ice Sea, between Ironhall and House Wintrey. Two of his children remained.
"YOU," he said to one, "WILL HAVE MY OLD CITADEL IN THE SOUTH."
It flew off, leaving just Deathbringer and Green Death. They flew to the centre of Emiria, to the Neck. This time, Deathbringer landed prior to casting a spell. Then, he summoned an enormous citadel out of the earth, twice as high as any other citadel.
"WE SHALL STAY HERE TOGETHER. THIS WILL BE OUR CASTLE, AS KINGS OF EMIRIA!"
Hasina returned to House Solus, and was met at the gates by Huo and Nera. Both of them saw the look on her face.
"Any survivors?" Huo asked hopefully.
"How many Shadowlings dead?" he asked.
"And while you were gone a messenger passed through," Huo said. "Anyone with knowledge on how to combat the dragons will be welcomed into the southern military to share their knowledge for gold. Obviously, we pretended to know nothing, but it just shows Tytos has not taken the show of strength seriously."
"I just hope King Roger does," Hasina said bitterly.
"It will make little difference," Huo said. "The North have yet to experience an attack; they will continue the war. Tytos is too concerned about taking land; he'll continue the war too. King Roger will have no choice but to defend his realm."
Taika came to join the conversation.
"You know I recently went to get information on the war?" she said.
"Well, a mini-mountain, made of stone, has materialised north of here. If you saw it, Hasina, I'm sure you'd recognise the shape."
Hasina didn't need anything else said.
"Deathbringer's been busy."
From his new citadel by The Neck, Deathbringer surveyed his domain. Shadowlings poured from the citadel, flying outwards in all directions, to eliminate all humans, dwarves, elves and dragons living in Emiria. The humans were concerned about their puny war; they would have to unite to stand a chance it this much bigger one.
"EMIRIA WILL FALL," Deathbringer chuckled. "I SHALL RULE, AND SPREAD MY INFLUENCE TO NEARBY REALMS. ZEOTRIEGN AND EMIRION SHALL FALL NEXT."
Green Death listened to his father's thoughts silently, while thinking similar malicious thoughts of his own.
House Solus was prepared for war. With Deathbringer's citadels standing in all the nations of Emiria, he was clearly about to begin his conquest. They had seen black clouds of Shadowlings on the horizon for hours.
"We can't wait any longer," Hasina said. "We have to move now. The Shadowlings are going to destroy all of Emiria."
Hasina rode on Tectia, while her makeshift army rode on horses beneath them. Before long, the Shadowlings were distinguishable as individuals, and a cloud of ten launched themselves for Tectia.
Icicle shards stabbed deep into one's neck and underbelly before it reached them, and it fell to the ground with a crunch. A hail of arrows struck the second, and it also fell. The other eight charged onwards. Tectia rolled to the side, evading the first one, then dropped below the left. She tore open one's underbelly as it passed above her, and the carcass hit the ground.
The Shadowlings wheeled round for another attack, the leader already preparing a blast of dark fire. Just as it left its throat, a fireball collided with the jet, neutralising it. Furious, the Shadowling dropped downwards, flying straight for Taika. She launched icicles at its face, but they shattered on its scales. An arrow suddenly struck the Shadowling in the eye, and it tumbled to the ground, flipping towards Taika. She just avoided it, but one of the spikes on its head caught her arm, leaving a large scar. She tore a strip from her top, staunching the bleeding for now.
Tectia rolled under a blast of dark fire, and punched the Shadowling square under the jaw. It spun out of control into the ground, with an explosion of dirt.
Just five remained now, but as they zoomed in for the next attack, they split up, one going either side of Tectia, one going above, one going below, and one heading straight for her. Tectia grabbed it round the neck, but it was larger and stronger than her, and Tectia spun wildly as she tried to hang on. Hasina drew her bow and did her best to aim for the Shadowling's eyes, but it was impossible, the way they were moving.
Three Shadowlings flew straight past them, but the other snapped its jaws shut around Tectia's wing. It then pulled its head violently sideways, ripping a chunk out. Tectia released the Shadowling and dropped to the ground with as much control as she could manage.
Taika rushed over to examine the wound.
"It's too large," she said breathlessly, "I can't heal it."
There was a thud as the five remaining Shadowlings landed in preparation to attack. Taika closes her eyes and concentrated, then fired icicle shards at one Shadowling, piercing its eyes and causing it to let out a shriek of pain before it keeled over and died.
"You are strong!" one Shadowling hissed at them. "But the Shadowlord is stronger!"
"Who's the Shadowlord?" Hasina asked.
"Leader of the Shadowlings," Tectia replied quickly. "Probably Deathbringer right now."
Shadows flitted over the group; they looked up to see five more Shadowlings turning to attack them. One released a blast of dark fire at them; Taika jumped in the way and hastily constructed a magic shield. It deflected the dark fire, but she cried out and fell to her knees, panting heavily.
"It's used up too much energy," Arin realised, firing an arrow into one of the flying Shadowlings' throat. It gave a strangled shriek, and fell to the ground. However, two more quickly came to replace it, diving towards them before Arin could reload. Tectia blasted them with fire, and it struck their underbellies; they flew straight over their heads before crashing to the ground, their corpses sizzling.
However, yet more Shadowlings appeared to join the fray. Hasina stared in horror.
"There's just too many!"
One of the Shadowlings on the ground pounced at Taika. Huo threw a spear at it, piercing its underbelly and causing it to crash to ground, as Hasina quickly pulled Taika out of the way of the rolling corpse.
Blasts of dark fire struck the ground around them, but before long they would be aimed at them. They had to do something, fast. The Shadowlings' number was growing by the minute. If they didn't find a way to mass wipe them out now, they would simply be overwhelmed.
Tectia struggled to her feet, and eyed the cloud of Shadowlings circling above them. Concentrating her energy, she blasted them with fire, pouring as much energy into it as she could afford to lose. Several sizzling corpses dropped to the ground, but Tectia then had lay down, resting her head on the ground to restore her energy.
One of the ground Shadowlings moved to attack Hasina. It slashed at her with its claw, and she raised her Meteorite shield to block the attack. The impact jarred her arm and flakes of Meteorite flew off, but the shield remained largely intact. The Shadowling blasted dark fire at her, but she rolled out of the way and rushed under the Shadowling, It grabbed her shield with one arm and attempted to throw her away, but Hasina let go of the shield and thrust her sword deep into the Shadowling's belly.
She withdrew it before the stomach hit the ground, then retrieved her shield from its loose paw. However, looking to the sky, she saw the Shadowlings that Tectia had blasted down had already been replaced.
One of the ground Shadowlings swiped at Arin, but he ducked , flattening himself against his horse to avoid the blow. The Shadowling then thrust its head at the horse, spearing it on one of its horns. Arin threw himself off just as the Shadowling lifted the horse and smashed it back onto the ground.
"We're never going to manage this!" Nera realised despairingly, though she still hefted her mace, keeping it pointed at the nearest Shadowlings.
Hasina knew she was right, but wouldn't voice it aloud. They had to keep fighting. There could only be so many Shadowlings, and many were flying to the four nations of Emiria, to decimate the populations. However, there were apparently still plenty to spare against them.
Hasina stood by Taika, guarding her while she recovered her energy. Arin had mounted the same horse as Intisara, who had his bow ready and pointed at some of the nearer Shadowlings.
A Shadowling dived at Hasina, smashing its rear paw into her stomach. She was sent hurtling backwards, and came to rest on her back in the dirt. One of the other Shadowlings now advanced on the defenceless and unprotected Taika. Evan rushed in to save her, lobbing his spear at the Shadowling. It hit its scales, and the spearhead was bent off, the shaft was snapped.
Evan grabbed Taika as he rode past, grabbing onto her. Between them, they just about managed to get her onto the horse. The enraged Shadowling took to the air to attack them, but suddenly halted, as did all the other Shadowlings. They cocked their heads, all in the same direction, and then flew off, dispersing north, south, and back to the main citadel.
"Why did they do that?" Evan asked.
"I'm not sure," Hasina replied, "But I suspect they'll be back. We should move."
"But Tectia cannot move!" Nera protested.
"It is true," Tectia admitted. "I can't, and neither me nor Taika have the energy left to heal it. You will have to leave me behind."
"We can't!" Hasina and Huo exclaimed in unison. "What will happen to House Solus?"
Tectia nodded at each of their group in turn. "It has worthy protectors already."
"So, what will happen to you?" Arin asked.
"The Shadowlings will most likely come back to kill me. But at least you will gone by then."
"What?" Nera cried.
"There is nothing we can do. I'm sorry."
Tectia closed her eyes, but Hasina could tell that for now she was just resting. Trying to reassure the others, who were close to tears like her, she said,
"The Shadowlings might not come back; not soon enough, anyway. Tectia might have time to heal herself."
"I hope so," Huo replied, though inside, they both knew it would not be the case.
"We should return to House Solus now," Hasina said. "It could be in danger from Shadowlings too. We'll have to double up on horses. I can go with Huo, Taika can go with Evan, and Arin can go with Intisara. You don't mind riding alone, do you, Nera?"
"No, that's fine. Besides, friends are just besides me."
"Yeah," Hasina said, smiling. "We are."
Green Death addressed his father. "I NEED TO HUNT," he said.
"THERE ARE SLUHA PLENTY FOR YOU TO FEAST ON."
"I NEED TO HUNT," Green Death insisted.
Now competent in magic, Green Death opened a hole in the citadel wall himself, and leapt out, opening his wings and gliding away, south-west.
Hasina and her friends arrived back at House Solus, to see a cloud of at least thirty Shadowlings descending upon the village. They blasted it with dark fire and tore apart houses with their bare hands, as the people ran away screaming, desperate to evade them.
Taika brought two down with blasts of icicle shards, and the rest of them managed to shoot down three with arrows. Five more turned to attack them, but the other twenty continued to the destroy the settlement. Hasina threw her Meteorite sword at one, tearing open its stomach and killing it. She ran forth to retrieve it, but another Shadowling lashed out, smacking her round the head and knocking her flying over ten metres.
Evan rode forwards to grab the sword, while Taika dispatched the nearest two Shadowlings with icicles. Another launched itself at them as Evan grabbed the Meteorite sword, but Evan thrust his own sword into its neck, and it passed straight over them before crashing to the ground. He threw the sword to Hasina, who caught it handle-first.
Another Shadowling had joined the battle. It crushed Arin in one large paw, dropping his limp body to the ground by his horse, which reared up and fled, only to be killed by a blast of dark fire.
"No!" Hasina cried.
She fired two arrows, grazing the Shadowling's belly but not killing it. As it circled round, three more came to join the fight. Taika fell the two remaining original ones with more icicles, but a group of five came to take their place.
One smashed its paw into Evan's horse. The horse and Evan were sent flying, but Taika rolled off in the other direction just in time. Evan was pinned down under the horse, and they were both blasted with dark fire, just seconds before Taika brought down the dragon with magic.
Intisara and Huo threw their spears at another Shadowling, killing it. Two more dived at them. One blasted the area around them with dark fire, and the other kicked Intisara hard, leaving deep scars and knocking him flying off his horse. He hit the ground with a heavy crunch. Huo's horse had been charging forwards, and it failed to avoid the dark fire. Huo leapt over it, just as his horse fell and died.
Nera was the only one still mounted, trying desperately to fight off a Shadowling and doing exceptionally well under the circumstances. Taika brought it down with some ice blasts, then rushed over to Nera.
"I need your horse," she said, quietly and urgently.
"Why?" Nera asked. "What about me?"
"Please, Nera. This is important. Our lives might depend on it."
"Well, OK. Just bring it back."
"I will," Taika said, smiling sadly, and knowing full well she never would.
Nera slid off the horse, and Taika mounted quickly before it could gallop off. Hasina spotted the change, and called out to her.
"What are you doing, Taika?"
"I have to," she said sadly, evading the question and riding straight for the village, where the majority of the Shadowlings remained.
A Shadowling launched itself at Hasina, and she was forced to forget Taika as it took all her skill to hold it off and final slit its throat to kill it. By then, Taika was already obscured by the smoke from flaming houses. Hasina suddenly recalled a conversation she had had with Taika, and realised what she was about to do.
"Taika, no!" she cried, running for the settlement. It was too late. In an enormous explosion, the village was destroyed, though the blast took down at least ten Shadowlings with it. Only the bottom two layers of Solus Spire still stood. Hasina stared in dismay. "Isn't that good?" Nera asked. "Most the Shadowlings are dead now."
"It's a kamikazee spell," Hasina said grimly. "Taika blew herself up to do that."
Just a few Shadowlings remained. Hasina, Huo and Nera managed to kill them all, avenging Taika's death somewhat. But all of a sudden, a much larger cloud appeared, breaking apart as the Shadowlings launched themselves at them.
Dark fire exploded all around them. Huo was caught directly in one blast, and he cried out as he fell. Hasina fired arrows at the descending cloud, felling at least three, but there were just too many. One kicked out at Nera, striking her in the chest and throwing her backwards. Hasina doubted she had survived.
Ever so quickly, the fight against Deathbringer's army had turned disastrous. The Shadowlings stormed towards Hasina, and she knew what was about to happened. She fired arrows blindly into the group, sure she was striking them. Indeed, she managed to fell a few more.
Then, things went from bad to worse. The cloud of Shadowlings parted, gaining height and giving Hasina and wider berth. At first, Hasina was relieved. Then, she saw why they had retreated.
Green Death had arrived.
Green Death hovered in the middle of the cloud of Shadowlings. He had what seemed like an argument with them, in dragon tongue, then landed just in front of Hasina. He looked up at the Shadowlings, and suddenly blasted them with dark fire, striking their underbellies and knocking the sizzling corpses from the sky. It turned to Hasina.
"YOU ARE HASINA STYRKE." It was a statement, not a question.
"Yeah, I am," Hasina stuttered nervously.
Green Death grabbed her between two claws with surprisingly delicacy, then took to the sky, flying north, far from House Solus. One of the citadels appeared in front of them, and Green Death turned left. They flew for a few more minutes, then he landed.
They were by a large rocky outcrop, in the middle of a large prairie. The citadel was still visible in the distance.
"Where are we?" Hasina asked, still nervous.
Green Death leapt into the air, spreading his wings and gliding over the front row of rocks.
"How am I supposed to fly?" Hasina called.
"FOLLOW ON THE GROUND."
Hasina soon found a gap between two rocks, and she slipped through. Green Death hovered above her, guiding her through the rocky maze. At the centre was a clearing of grass about sixty metres wide. Green Death landed, and his head touched one end of the clearing, and his tail tip the other, leaving little room for Hasina.
A huge rock marked one end of the clearing; however, it was a huge door. There was a hole in it, leading down, into the ground.
Hasina stared nervously at the hole. She had been in caves recently, and they hadn't been pleasant experiences...
"FINE. I WILL ENTER FIRST."
Green Death strolled in, wing tips scraping the ceiling, until even his tail tip was gone. A few seconds later, Hasina heard his voice echo around the tunnel.
This time, Hasina could not resist. She entered the tunnel, followed its curving path round into an enormous cavern. It was easily three times the length of Green Death, and she could barely see the ceiling. Fiery torches were stuck in brackets on the wall, but other than that it showed no sign of being inhabited.
"Where... where am I?"
"THIS IS AN OLD HIDEOUT OF THE ORDER OF DRAGONSLAYER KNIGHTS," Green Death explained.
"And why are you taking me here? Why not to the citadel?"
"I HAVE BEEN THINKING, A LONG TIME. OF BEING A LORD, HAVING ALL OF EMIRIA AS MY HOME. EXPANDING MY LANDS TO EMIRION, ZEOTRIEGN AND BEYOND. BUT FATHER'S IDEA... IT IS FLAWED."
Hasina couldn't believe what she was hearing.
"What do you mean?"
"HE WISHES TO WIPE OUT ALL LIFE IN EMIRIA, AND NEARBY REALMS. WHAT GOOD IS BEING A LORD IF YOU HAVE NO SERVANTS. THE SHADOWLINGS ARE WORTH NOTHING IN A WORLD WITH NO OTHER LIFE. SO I HAVE COME TO A CONCLUSION."
"And what's that?"
"I MUST STOP FATHER."
"You really mean that? You're going to help me defeat Deathbringer."
"YES. I CAN LEAD THE SHADOWLING ARMY AGAINST HIM."
"But isn't Deathbringer their Shadowlord?"
"So they'll listen to him over you."
"Then what will we do?"
"IT WILL BE WORTH A TRY. I SHALL DESTROY ANY SHADOWLINGS THAT OPPOSE US."
Hasina couldn't help but feel she was being led, that this was all a clever concocted lie, but it sounded genuine enough, and she was so without allies, so without hope, that she knew this was her one chance.
"Let's do it."
"GREEN DEATH HAS NOT RETURNED," Deathbringer boomed. "YOU, MY CHILD, MUST TAKE AN ARMY OF SHADOWLINGS TO THE LAST HIDING PLACE OF THE ORDER OF DRAGONSLAYER KNIGHTS. HE SHALL BE HIDING THERE, A TRAITOR NO DOUBT. THE SHADOWLINGS ARE TO LISTEN TO YOUR WORDS ABOVE HIS."
"AS YOU ORDER."
The child flew out of the citadel, calling an army of around two hundred Shadowlings in shadowtongue, their first language.
"WE FLY FOR THE WESTERN TERRITORY," he boomed. "THE SHADOWLORD HIMSELF ORDERS YOU TAKE MY WORD ABOVE ANYONE ELSE BUT HIS."
The Shadowlings replied their agreement, and the army set off.
Amidst the ruins of House Solus, one body twitched. It then lay still for five minutes, before finding the effort to sit up. Taika looked at ruins around her, wondering why she was still alive. She had tried to cast the kamikazee spell, and from the looks of things, she had succeeded. However, her body should have been blasted to bits, and it was quite clearly in one piece.
She saw parts of horse around her, and realised what might have happened. Before casting the spell, she had made a magic shield around her, that would let the blast out but not let anything in. Somehow, she had tapped into the horse's mind, and it had exploded, while the magic shield kept her alive, albeit draining her energy and knocking herself out.
She stood up, and looked around her. She walked through the ruins, looking for any survivors. She found none, only the corpses of those she knew had died. However, there was no sign of Hasina, or Huo, neither alive or dead.
Horrible thoughts struck Taika; what if they had been kidnapped? Or completely incinerated? No doubt they had simply survived, killing any Shadowlings that survived the blast, and then left, presuming she was dead. At least now she could lie low, and try and think up a plan to get her to Deathbringer's Citadel. Or, perhaps more importantly, a plan to stop the clouds of Shadowlings that had been dispatched to destroy Emiria.
However, she had no horse, and nowhere really to go. In the end, she decided to make the short walk over to Tectia's cavern, and rest there. She arrived at the spot; she knew it well, having been their several times, but the cavern wasn't there. She suddenly remembered Tectia covered it with soil when she left.
Using her own magical abilities, Taika located the cavern entrance and destroyed the thin wall of soil with a fireball. She did not know the spell to bring the barrier up, so left the entrance open, and retreated to deeper in the cavern.
Green Death flew straight for the centre citadel, Hasina on his back. They had not flown far, and gathered about ten Shadowlings, when another of Deathbringer's children flew towards them, an army of two hundred Shadowlings behind him.
"FOLLOW ME!" he roared. "GREEN DEATH IS A TRAITOR! THE HUMAN HE CARRIES WOULD KILL THE SHADOWLORD!"
Instantly, the ten Shadowlings descended on them. Hasina cut one's stomach wide open with an arcing slash as it passed overhead. Green Death speared one on his claws, and smashed it into another Shadowling, snapping its wing. Both plummeted to the ground.
As more dived towards them, Green Death whipped his tail round, disabling another five, who plummeted to the ground, impacting with a sickening crunch. Two remained, and Green Death grabbed one in each paw. He crushed the life of them, then dropped the corpses to the ground. But now, the cloud of two hundred surged towards them.
Grimly, Green Death released an enormous jet of fire, enveloping the front waves of Shadowlings. At least twenty smoking carcasses hit the ground, but there were still far more to come. Green Death dropped suddenly beneath them, then rolled over and blasted the cloud with dark fire. At least another thirty must have fallen, and then he powered upwards, arms windmilling around, crashing through the crowd of Shadowlings, tearing down several more. However, above the cloud was a vulnerable position.
The cloud surged upwards, some blasted dark fire and others slicing and snapping wildly. Green Death desperately kicked them away, but there were far too many. Green Death lost his balance, and plummeted briefly, through the cloud of Shadowlings, before he corrected himself.
This position was no better. Hasina was vulnerable now, and the Shadowling descended in their masses. Green Death craned his neck up, blasting a mob of them with dark fire.
Then, he powered away, eluding the cloud for now.
"HM HM HM. SHADOWLINGS! YOU WILL LEAVE HIM!"
The Shadowlings gave Deathbringer's child a confused glance, but obeyed nonetheless. The child flew into position a couple of hundred metres from Green Death.
"I AM RED DEATH!" he boomed. "AND NOW, THE SHADOWLINGS SHALL OBEY THE WINNER OF THIS DUEL ABOVE ALL BUT THE SHADOWLORD!"
With a sinking feeling, Hasina realised what was about to happen. They were about to duel Red Death.
Red Death roared, and Green Death roared back. They launched themselves at each other. Red Death slashed downwards, tearing scales from Green Death's shoulder. Blue blood squirted from the wound. Angrily, Green Death punched him hard in the underbelly, knocking him back. Green Death then kicked at red Death's face, leaving long scars but not hitting anything fatal like the eyes.
As Green Death launched himself at Red Death again, Red Death rolled over, lashing out with all four paws, and leaving small scars on Green Death's underbelly. He rolled back over, and blasted him with dark fire as he turned round. It found little purchase on Green Death's scales, and was soon snuffed out. Green Death retaliated with his own blast, which found considerably more purchase, but was still snuffed out before it could deal notable damage.
The two launched at each other again, grabbing hold of each other round the neck. They snapped at each others faces, to no avail. Red Death thought fast. He blasted dark fire straight into Green Death's mouth. Green Death howled in pain and released his grasp, but Red Death kept and firm grasp on him.
Green Death kicked wildly, and released a blast of fire. It went wide, but Hasina realised it was to put out the dark fire in his mouth.
However, in this time, Red Death had released his hold and glided round Green Death. He sliced at his wing, snapping the bone supporting the flap of skin at the end. Green Death roared in pain, wheeling around wildly and smacking Red Death round the face with his tail.
They both retreated, leaving a gap of a few hundred metres between them. They hovered and recovered for a minute or so, then launched themselves at each other again.
They clashed in mid-air, nearly throwing Hasina off. She struggled to find a handhold, but enventually found a rough scale she could grip on, just in front of Green Death's hind leg. Red Death clouted him round the head, but he recovered quickly, smashing his jaw into his skull and shattering some of his teeth. Red Death released a wild blast of fire, even though he was aware it wouldn't harm Green Death.
Green Death, unaware of Hasina's predicament, ducked under Red Death and rolled round, smashing his underbelly with his claws, and leaving several deep gouges. However, the movement also threw Hasina off, and she fell towards the ground. Instantly spotting a target other than the two dueling dragons, the cloud of Shadowlings descended as well, just metres behind and getting closer by the second. Nonetheless, Hasina knew she would hit the ground before they reached her.
Taika had been searching through Tectia's treasure trove for something that could help her, assuming that Tectia, if she ever returned, wouldn't mind given the current crisis. She knew a bit of Emiria geography, enough to know the Shadowlings had probably reached World's End, Storm's Eye, Sky Fort, Winter's Guard and Ironhall, the five most notable houses in Emiria. If they had departed from the respective citadels across Emiria, they could already have finished their work.
All she had managed to find was a long staff, with a glowing, pink crystal encased in one end. Whenever she touched it, she felt a flow of energy in her body, so she guessed it would give her more energy to cast magic spells. Other than that, Tectia's treasure was mainly gold coins, crystals, and lumps of rare ores such as Meteorite. Nothing Taika could use.
Suddenly, Taika heard a familiar voice.
"Hello? Is anyone there?"
She rushed to the entrance to the cavern, where, just like she'd thought, Huo was standing.
She ran over to him and embraced him, before leading him inside where they were less exposed.
"You got in here?" he asked.
"I could use magic to find the entrance. But I don't know the spell to put the barrier up."
"So how did you survive? I couldn't see anyone alive when I recovered."
"I could ask you the same. Hasina said you'd cast a kamikazee spell."
"I had. I also cast a magic shield around me that let stuff out, but not in, as if it would help me. And then, I somehow tapped into the horse's mind, and it exploded. My magic shield was enough to protect me."
"One of the Shadowlings - a new batch came after we'd finished the first - blasted dark fire at me. I actually managed to duck mostly underneath it, and when I rolled, the fire jumped off and onto the ground. Then I needed to rest."
"Do you have any idea what happened to Hasina?"
Huo was silent for a moment. "No. I couldn't see her anywhere."
"Yeah. Same here."
Eager to change the subject, Huo asked, "Where'd you get that staff?"
"It was in Tectia's treasure pile. I think this gem has some sort of magical energy that I can use when holding it."
"You took something from the treasure pile?"
"If Tectia ever returns, I think she'll understand."
"Yeah. I guess so."
Though it was very subtle, Green Death felt the weight of Hasina on his back disappear, and though he saw Red Death aiming another strike at him, he also saw the Shadowlings diving towards her. He understood the world in many ways more than even his father, and could tell the Shadowlings would only reach her 6.1 seconds after she hit the ground, while he could get there 2.8 seconds before.
He dropped all defences and dived vertically, changing his line of descent only slightly so he could reach Hasina. A blast of flame took care of the nearest Shadowlings, and then he reached out a paw and grabbed Hasina out of the sky. It wasn't delicate, but just a second later he snapped open his wings and travelled horizontally just metres above the ground.
Now he had to deal with the consequences of leaving himself defenceless. Red Death slammed into him from above, crushing him into the ground with incredible force. Green Death felt his bones snap and knew he could fight no longer. Hasina had rolled out from his paw, and he looked right at her. Using one of his rare talents, he projected his thoughts clearly into her mind. Just one word.
Then, a yellow bubble enveloped Hasina, before collapsing into a single point and fading away completely. Hasina was gone.
Red Death clawed Green Death round the face, and he rolled over onto his back, before giving a mighty push of his wings to force him back into the air, where he turned to face Red Death once more.
Hasina found herself enveloped in golden light, almost as if she was inside a bubble. There was a loud bang, and suddenly the bubble faded away.
She looked around her, and recognised where she was instantly. She was outside Tectia's den, by House Solus. Green Death had clearly teleported her away using the last of his strength. She felt what she could almost describe as sadness for the great dragon - born a ruthless killer, he had tried to change his ways and bring an end to his father's tyranny, only to be felled by his own brother.
Then, another thought hit Hasina. When they had left, Tectia had concealed her den, and now the entrance was wide open. Someone was inside. Drawing her Meteorite sword and shield, she advanced cautiously inside.
"Hm hm hm," Green Death sighed, dodging another of Red Death's swipes with practiced ease, as he waited for his bones to heal. "You really have no idea of the true extent of Father's plans, do you?"
"I KNOW ALL THERE IS TO KNOW. HE WILL MAKE US LORDS OVER EMIRIA, AND YOU, THE TRAITOR, WILL PERISH!"
"Didn't think so," Green Death said. He dodged another vicious slash, and continued. "He doesn't need Emiria, he doesn't want it. You think his five citadels are to be castles, placed all around Emiria to enforce his rule?"
"I KNOW THAT IS WHAT THEY ARE TO BE."
"Then you know wrong. They aren't castles; they are merely monuments to channel Deathbringer's magic. Placed in five strategic points around Emiria, to allow him to use his power to its maximum potency."
Red Death breathed fire over Green Death, engulfing him harmlessly. Green Death rose above the flames with ease, and Red Death followed.
"Don't you see? He's not going to use the citadels to rule Emiria. He's going use them to tear it apart!"
Green Death launched himself towards Red Death, then suddenly faded to nothing. Red Death wheeled around, surprised, and suddenly, Green Death appeared underneath him, moving forward at incredible speed. His outstretched talons tore through Red Death's undebelly, tearing the flesh and scales to shreds and crippling him. Red Death backed off, wimpering, and Green Death used the teleport spell again to leave the battlefield.
Hasina strode into Tectia's cave, sword pointed in front of her. She stepped into the main cavern, and raised her shield as a bolt of fire smashed into it, dissipating harmlessly.
"Taika?" Hasina asked, peering out from behind her shield.
"Hasina!" Huo cried, and both he and Taika rushed forward to greet her.
"Sorry 'bout that," Taika said. "I didn't know it was you."
"That's fine," Hasina said, smiling. "It's good to see you both alive. What about the others?"
Taika and Huo were silent, and Hasina realised that no-one else had made it out. She bit her lip to stop herself crying, and the silence stretched on uncomfortably.
"So what happened?" Huo asked, breaking the silence. "We thought you were dead when the Green Death took you away. What happened?"
"He went against Deathbringer," Hasina said simply, and summed up what had happened since she had been taken away. "I don't know if he made it out."
"Well," Taika said, "It's clear fighting the Shadowlings isn't getting us anywhere. There are just too many of them. We need to take the fight to Deathbringer himself."
"But he lives in a citadel twice as high as his old one," Hasina said. "It will take even longer to climb than the last time."
"Still," Taika countered, "I've been looking at some of the scrolls in here, and I've learnt quite a bit more about how magic can be used. And I found this staff, and a Dragonsbane sword for Huo. I'm sure we stand a much better chance now."
"A Dragonsbane sword may be capable of piercing even Dreadfire's armour, but it won't scratch Deathbringer," Hasina said simply. "Believe me, I've seen it tried."
"It might be effective against the Shadowlings," Huo volunteered.
"Perhaps," Hasina agreed.
All conversation was stopped by a booming voice echoing down the entrance corridor and into the cavern.
"HASINA STYRKE OF HOUSE SOLUS," it boomed. "I KNOW YOU ARE IN THERE. COME OUT AND FACE ME!"
"I know that voice," Huo said. "It's..."
Far under the ground, in the depths of his catacombs, Dreadfire stirred once more. His faster-than-average healing ability had taken just under two years to fully expel the ruby shards from his eyes, during which time he was in agonising pain and could do nothing but play dead.
Now, the process complete, he got to his feet again. His first thoughts would normally have gone to revenge, on the humans who had caused him this pain, but he had sensed the unrest in the world above. He could tell the humans were at war, and he could tell Deathbringer was rising. As such, his thoughts turned not to revenge on Hasina, but to revenge on Deathbringer, and a temporary alliance with the humans. He could crush them afterwards.
Shaking dirt and mud off his flanks, Dreadfire pushed the huge wooden doors open and squeezed through the tunnels of the catacombs, which had shrunk considerably since he'd last used them. Eventually, he forced his way to the surface, and felt the sun on his scales for the first time in over two millenia.
He flexed his wings, also fully repaired since his tussle with Deathbringer, and finally managed to take to the air again. Wheeling around, he spotted a blotch of pure black on the horizon, rapidly getting larger. Soon he could easily identify them as Shadowlings; minions of Deathbringer.
Roaring his fury, Dreadfire incinerated the entire wave of Shadowlings, but saw a much larger cloud forming on the horizon. He judged they were preparing an invasion on the south, and so decided it would be best if he avoided encountering them, and instead hunted down Hasina, which would be easy with his superior senses.
"We can't go," Taika said nervously.
"YOU WILL COME!" Dreadfire bellowed.
"I'll go alone," Hasina said.
"You can't!" Huo protested. "He'll kill you!"
"I have no choice, and I'm not going to lose anyone else. You two stay here."
Without waiting for confirmation, Hasina drew her sword and strode out of the cavern. Dreadfire sat at the entrance to the tunnel, far larger than Tectia and too large to fit inside.
"PUT AWAY THAT TRINKET OF YOURS," Dreadfire boomed. "IF I WISHED TO KILL YOU, IT WOULD DO YOU NO GOOD ANYWAY."
"If?" Hasina questioned, still not sheathing her sword.
"THERE IS SOMEONE I WISH TO SLAY ABOVE YOU. YOU KNOW OF WHO I SPEAK."
"Precisely," Dreadfire said, lowering his voice. "The fiend will die at my hand."
"How can I trust you?"
"The battle that formed the basis of your dragon lore... You understand now. You know who it was. You understand Deathbringer, in a way you did not before. We must all join forces to stand against him."
Taika and Huo had been listening in on the conversation just a little further down the tunnel, and stepped forwards now. Both had their weapons sheathed. Hasina realised she was still holding her sword and sheathed it also.
"You see sense," Dreadfire commented. "Good."
"Green Death!" Taika cried suddenly, seeing him materialise in the air behind Dreadfire.
"Who?" Dreadfire roared. "I shall start by slaying him!" he continued, turning to face Green Death.
"Wait!" Hasina cried. "He's on our side! He doesn't believe in Deathbringer's motives either!"
Green Death landed lightly besides Dreadfire. His bones had fully healed now, at a rate several times faster even than Dreadfire. He bore no scars of the previous battle.
While it is true I do not agree with Deathbringer's motives, Green Death said, speaking through telepathy, It is not for the reasons I told you, he finished, looking at Hasina.
"What do you mean?"
Deathbringer doesn't mean to raze all life on this continent. He wishes to tear it apart. The citadels are merely ways to channel his magical powers.
"But he can't!" Taika spluttered. "He'll kill everything!"
And that surprises you? Green Death asked.
Taika blushed slightly. "I guess not..."
We must take the fight straight to the main citadel. Its force of Shadowlings will be weak, as most have left to decimate Emiria. If we do not act soon, however, they will already be returning.
At the peak of his citadel, Deathbringer fumed.
"HOW COULD YOU FAIL! THE TASK WAS SIMPLE ENOUGH, AND I GAVE YOU AN ARMY!"
Frightened into submission, Red Death only whimpered in reply. "He had some sort of phasing ability."
"OF COURSE HE DOES. HE WAS THE EMBODIMENT OF MY POWER, TURNED AGAINST ME!"
"He spoke of something else, Father."
"He said you planned not to rule Emiria... but to destroy it."
"MY PLANS ARE NOT YOUR CONCERN. WHETHER I MEAN TO RULE OR DESTROY IT, YOU SHALL BE AT MY SIDE, AS SHALL THE REST OF YOUR BRETHREN."
"NOW, GATHER MY CHILDREN. I WANT THE LAST ALLIES OF THE RESISTANCE CRUSHED FOREVER. THEY HAVE BEEN A THORN IN MY SIDE FOR TOO LONG!"
Green Death eyed the staff at Taika's belt.
That is the Staff of Judgement, he observed. It was thought to be lost, in a great war not spoken of, even by Deathbringer. It greatly increases the magical casting potential of the wearer, to the extent that even level 5 spells can be cast with minimal risk.
"I found it in Tectia's treasure pile," Taika explained. "I also read a few scrolls detailing more powerful magical techniques."
Nonetheless, use them with caution. Green Death then gazed at Huo's sword. A sword of the Dragonsbane. A cursed weapon, not fit to be wielded by man," he said with disgust. However, in your hands, I believe it can be used for good. Such weapons are rare indeed; most relics belong to Deathbringer himself.
"We move!" Green Death said, speaking aloud. "We have little time to make our strike, before the Shadowling army return. If that happens, it will be too late. The three of you will ride on my back, and Dreadfire will ride alongside us."
"We are being watched," Dreadfire growled.
"What do you mean?" Huo asked.
Dreadfire turned to face a clump of bushes, and Hasina spotted a pair of eyes disappear into the undergrowth, in a way Hasina recognised. She smiled.
"Nera!" she called. "It's safe. You can come out."
Cautiously, and still holding her mace in both hands, Nera stepped out of undergrowth. Several strips of leaves and ripped clothing were wound tight around her waist, stained red. Hasina ran out to meet her, and knelt down to have a look at her makeshift bandage. It was tied tight, but not too tight, and had stopped the bleeding sufficiently.
"Will it be OK?" Nera asked.
"Yes," Hasina said. "You did a good job. What happened?"
"I'm not sure. One of the black dragons hit me, and then I just remember waking up, and there was no one else around. I hid in the trees, and then I saw you, but you were with the big dragons too."
"It's all right. They're on our side now. They'll help us take down Deathbringer."
"Really?" Nera asked, smiling.
Huo and Taika then came over, and said hello to Nera as well. However, Dreadfire soon interrupted the reunion.
"We need to leave. Now," he said.
"Come on, Nera," Hasina said. "You're going to get to ride on a dragon!"
Hasina helped Nera up first, then followed her, and Huo and Taika climbed up last. Nera was a little nervous, but Hasina showed her how to hold on, and found her own handholds as well.
Ridden by Hasina and her allies, Green Death tore through the sky, Dreadfire keeping pace alongside him. Once or twice, they were forced to land and shelter to avoid having to deal with large waves of Shadowlings, but mostly they came in small packs, which Green Death and Dreadfire incinerated. Before long, the spire of Deathbringer's central citadel appeared on the horizon, growing larger and larger with every passing second.
They arrived at the citadel, and circled round it twice. Dreadfire roared in fury and pounded ineffectually on the walls as he realised the central citadel had no doorway.
"How do we get inside?" Nera asked.
I wasn't expecting this, Green Death admitted.
"What do you mean?" Hasina asked.
I never tried leaving through the front gate.
"Can't you open up a gate for us, then?"
"Not from the outside. Deathbringer will have shielded it from my magic."
The wind blew sounds of slow, deliberate wingbeats coming from the right. Green Death and Dreadfire turned to face the new arrival. It was one of Deathbringer's children.
"Is that Red Death?" Huo asked.
No. I crippled him for years, at least.
"I am Red Fury! And on the orders of my father, I will not allow you to pass."
Hold back, Dreadfire, Green Death sighed. "I will not fight you, Red Fury!"
"Then this will be easier for me."
"Please," Green Death continued. "Do you know our father plans not to rule Emiria, but to rip it apart? I still believe our species can do good; repent for all the suffering Deathbringer has caused. But if this is to happen, I need you as an ally."
"I will not betray our father! His power is unimaginable!"
"You think I don't know that? That's why I can't do this alone, or even with Dreadfire."
Nera squealed indignantly, but Red Fury did not hear her and Green Death thought it would be better to introduce everyone once they knew they had another ally.
Red Fury hung in the sky, considering. Green Death didn't dare to be hopeful.
"I'm sorry," Red Fury said. "I can't go against my father. If I'm to stay safe, the best place to be is at his side."
"But you won't fight us?"
"I never saw you," Red Fury replied, and disappeared further round the citadel.
"What was that about?" Hasina asked.
"Red Fury is Deathbringer's only daughter. And I do not believe Deathbringer's actions alone justify the extinction of his species."
Without another word, Green Death began to glide round the citadel again, searching for a weakspot in the magical field that might allow him to break in. Knowing his father, there probably wasn't one, but he had to look.
Unseen by Green Death, a Shadowling detached itself from the citadel walls above them and flew up, straight to its master.
Red Fury saw the Shadowling detach from the citadel walls and head upwards, and she quickly deduced what it had seen. She flew up beneath it, and without warning grabbed one of its wings and twisted it backwards, snapping it and sending the dragon tumbling to foot of the citadel, where it was killed on impact.
She then ascended to the chamber where Deathbringer resided, making an entrance in the citadel walls with her magic.
"WHAT DO YOU HAVE TO REPORT?" Deathbringer bellowed.
Red Fury sighed. "Green Death and Dreadfire are circling the citadel as we speak."
"HM HM HM. I THOUGHT I'D CRUSHED THE LIFE OUT OF THAT WRETCH, THOUSANDS OF YEARS AGO. WHAT OF THE HUMANS?"
"There were four, riding on Green Death, and the girl was among them."
"YOU HAVE DONE WELL. I SHALL WAIT FOR THEM TO COME TO ME, AND CRUSH THE LIFE OUT OF THEM FOREVER!"
Green Death's circles around the citadel were getting smaller and smaller as they neared the top.
"We must be cautious," Dreadfire said. "We cannot be far from where Deathbringer resides."
"That is true," Green Death agreed. for they were now circling the very peak of the citadel. Green Death had not found anywhere he could penetrate the citadel's magical shield, and now they were outside where Deathbringer was almost definitely waiting.
As Dreadfire flew past, a section of the wall suddenly opened, and a massive stream of dark fire poured out, filling the opening and striking Dreadfire full on. He roared in agony, and tried to move out of the blast radius, but could not. Helpless, his allies watched on in horror as his very skin was burnt from the bone. First, his wings were torn apart, leaivng just the bones, and then the rest of his body followed, incinerated in one blast. The fire then ceased, and Dreadfire's skeletal remains fell to the ground below.
Green Death flew cautiously through the opening.
"If such a thing is possible, you have grown stronger, Father."
"NO. I HAVE SIMPLY TIRED OF PLAYING WITH WORMS LIKE YOU, WHEN MY FINAL VICTORY IS ABOUT TO BE COMPLETED!"
"I'm sorry, Father, but I cannot let you continue with this."
"YOU CANNOT STOP ME! BARE WITNESS TO MY MIGHT!"
Deathbringer uttered some words of magic, too low for even Green Death to hear, and there was a mighty crumbling sound.
"LOOK BELOW, AND YOU WILL SEE, THE VERY GROUND IS BEING TORN ASUNDER!"
Get off, Green Death said to Hasina and her friends.
What? Taika asked, using her somewhat limited telepathy skills to keep the conversation secret.
Do it. The fate of Emiria depends on it.
Hasina did as Green Death had ordered, and slipped off, helping Nera, Huo and Taika down after her.
"If you will not obey me, then I shall fight you, Father!" Green Death bellowed, launching himself at Deathbringer. He sprayed fire at him, obscuring Deathbringer from view, but Deathbringer could see through the smokescreen easily, and delivered a brutal uppercut as Green Death came into range, throwing him backwards against the wall.
"IT WILL BE A LONG TIME BEFORE YOU ARE AS POWERFUL AS ME, GREEN DEATH," he boasted. "AND NOW," turning to Hasina, he continued, "IT HAS BEEN A WHILE SINCE I HAVE SEEN YOU, AND I MUST SAY I SOMEWHAT REGRET ALLOWING YOU TO LIVE. NONETHELESS, I SHALL RECTIFY MY MISTAKE TODAY!"
"I need to talk to you about something, before we make any other plans."
"What is it?"
"In Tectia's scrolls, it mentioned a spell that I think was lost to humans a long time ago, and with good reason. Using the five-level risk assessment, this one is way off the scale. Even with the magical power in the staff, the spell would probably kill me, but I think it can take down Deathbringer too. And I'm prepared to use it, if it'll save Emiria."
"No, Taika, you can't. You've risked your life once already for this cause, you don't have to again."
"It might be the only way."
Hasina was silent briefly, then relented. "Alright. But promise me one thing."
"Don't use it unless I tell you to. I won't have you throw your life away in vain."
Deathbringer made a wild swipe at Hasina, which she ducked under. Leaping forwards, she went to slice at Deathbringer, but he parried with his claws. Wielding her sword with skills honed over two years at House Solus, she matched Deathbringer blow for blow in a vicious sword dance.
Huo leapt forward to join her, Dragonsbane sword in his hand. Deathbringer whipped his other forepaw out, and entered combat with Huo as well. Taika stood back, firing ineffectual magic blasts at him.
Hasina avoided another of Deathbringer's strikes, and thrust her sword vertically upwards into his paw. The strike had no effect, but the meteorite blade did not shatter. Deathbringer stepped back and breathed massive gouts of flame over Hasina and Huo, but using the energy stored in her staff, Taika produced a magical aura around them that absorbed the fire attack.
Deathbringer smashed his paws against the citadel floor, and the entire structure shook, as the chasms at the base of the citadel expanded. Hasina and Huo were knocked off their feet, and Deathbringer tossed Huo across the room like a rag doll. He impacted heavily against the back wall, and slumped to the ground.
Surrounded in the fiery aura, Hasina continued to duel with Deathbringer. Nera stepped forward and swung her mace, striking Deathbringer as he made to strike Hasina, but the spiked ball was iron and did not make a scratch. Deathbringer turned angrily to her, and smashed her across the room in a single punch. Nera was thrown right out the citadel, through the hole they had entered.
"Nera!" Hasina cried.
Deathbringer used her distraction to his advantage, knocking her to the floor, but Hasina raised her blade and defended against his strikes until she could stand again.
Green Death struggled to his feet, but Red Fury left Deathbringer's side to face him. Inside, Hasina blazed with anger - the traitor! However, as she approached at a run, Green Death swung a well-timed swipe, grabbed her round the neck and threw her out the citadel in one fluent movement. He took to the air in the cavernous chamber and descended on Deathbringer in a flurry of claws and teeth.
Deathbringer made a powerful upward strike that threw Hasina backwards and sent her sword spinning across the chamber, and turned to face Green Death. He rolled away from the first barrage of strikes, and breathed columns of flame at him to hold him off. Green Death flew around the flames and attacked again, but Deathbringer was ready. He countered Green Death's claws with his own, and his jaws snapped shut around Green Death's neck.
Deathbringer jolted his head, releasing his grip and throwing Green Death across the room, where he landed painfully, and turned back to Hasina, who had now risen again. He made a wide horizontal strike, and Hasina barely evaded it, having lost her sword already.
"Taika!" Hasina called.
"I can't! You'll-"
"Just do it! Now!" she cried, as she barely avoided another deadly strike. The entire citadel shook again, reminding them all of the imminent danger Emiria was in.
Taika raised her staff, and began uttering an incantation in the ancient tongue. Even Deathbringer halted his assault, as he recognised the spell; and yet he hadn't heard it since the birth of Mythos itself.
"STOP!" he bellowed. "YOU DO NOT UNDERSTAND THE POWER OF-"
He was cut short as Taika finished the spell. Purple, jagged lightning burst from the tip of the staff, and crashed into the floor of the room, rending it asunder. The energy travelled along the floor towards Deathbringer, creating a massive chain explosion that incinerated everything in its path. Then, it struck Deathbringer, and there was a massive explosion, and the entire room was filled with white light.
Then, for Hasina, everything went black.
A Rage Dragon had been flying towards the Neck in the event of its cities needing aid after potential attacks by Deathbringer. She approached the citadel, but as she got close, the top of the citadel was suddenly blown off. She stopped short, stunned.
There was a huge boom, and a fiery explosion blew the top of the citadel. Massive stone fragments were thrown outwards and fell to the earth below. A mushroom cloud expanded above where the peak of the citadel had once been, but it was now several hundred metres shorter.
There were sounds of massive earthquakes in the distance, and though the Rage Dragon could not see it, Deathbringer's citadels in the north, east and west were receding back into the ground, leaving just a large chasm in the earth where they had once stood. Only the remnants of the centre citadel and his original southern lair remained.
Examining the cities below, the Rage Dragon saw one that had been half swallowed by the expanding chasms that were part of Deathbringer's plan to destroy Emiria. She descended, spotting many wounded and some dead among the villagers, and resolved to help them.
Unseen by anyone, a brick-red dragon moved out from the cover of the mushroom cloud, a human figure dangling from its claws, and headed south.
The Adventure Continues