|The Fire in the Mists|
Like most of the old Weyrs, V'skarn was a cavern complex dug deep into the bones of the mountain, forming great chambers hundreds of feet across connected by tunnels that even the largest of the dragons could pass through, with an opening near the peak leading straight down into the central shaft, from which most other caverns branched. For a man to reach the opening would require a trek up the treacherous snow and ice, and in many places up sheer cliffs, that would take several days to complete. Even then, the opening had a smooth lip ten feet high and a permanent watch was kept by the guard-drakes; small and stupid but dangerous distant relatives of those they guarded.
This was the Weyr over which Vaessiros was lord. It was a quiet joy to fly up here and look down over it, just to feel the combined sense of satisfaction and awe, though he knew there were Weyrs greater than this one. Over sixty dragons lived here; among them his brother Galahsin and his mate, Sashana. Most were red or grey, but there was a fair proportion of goldens like himself. He could dimly remember the days when golden dragons had been at least a fifth of the population; not so now. Given that they were supposed to be stronger and more intelligent, what did that prove?
Normal dragons were a dying breed. Only four thousand years into the life of Mythos and their heyday had been and gone, just to watch the Zolothot and Alfa, and soon probably humanity, fade away in much the same manner. Some of their cousins were doing well- the Rage Dragons, Shadowlings, and Draegens were examples- but they were the exceptions only. The age of dragons was over.
He hummed in disatisfaction. Dragons had more than made their mark, but it did not seem like it had been enough. The dragon riders were likely the only reason why humanity stood to this day; did that mean that the dragons were to blame for all the ills that the humans had brought to Emiria and beyond? Or, if he was feeling particularly generous, their successes?
Galahsin rose up to fly alongside him, his great bronze wings sweeping through the air lazily but evidently with great power behind them.
"Are you troubled, brother?"
"I am." He swept his gaze over the mountains. "The way the world is changing disturbs me."
"There is precious little we can do to change the way the cogs turn once they are set. The gods made the world like this for their own reasons, and it progresses according to their plans."
Vaessiros shook his head. "Their plans were disrupted long ago. They have no power over the Demons and little over the strongest of creatures. And remember that they are hardly working together."
Galahsin sighed. "If it were not to their liking, they would change the world."
"Unless they cannot, or will not, or have long since given up."
"This is an old dragon's philosophy, brother. We tend to the Weyr, not the departure of the gods. More pragmatism is required."
"Right, pragmatism. That's what the world needs." They swooped back down together, and noticed Xan'zou by the opening.
The oriental dragon rose up slowly to meet them. "Ah, there you are. Errenos wishes to talk to you."
Errenos had been a warrior once, and it showed. Upon his gnarled hide were the marks of battles with men, alfa, dragons, and stranger things; yet he remained alive. Dragons did not weaken as they aged, but the weariness got to some. As one of the oldest members of the Weyr, Errenos had less and less time for reality as the years wore on.
"Vaessiros. Good of you to have come so quickly."
"There was nothing else pressing. What do you need?"
Errenos tilted his head slightly. "Why, I need nothing. I offer you advice."
"I am listening."
"The human world has sunk into war once again, I hear. The kings of Emiria bring their armies, softened by too many years of peace, out and throw them blindly at each other until someone can sue for peace. They will then bicker over a treaty and eventually come up with terms that leave no-one satisfied and put everything back to square one."
"That is none of our concern."
"Oh, it is, this time. Hades is turbulent and certain notable individuals of the Greater Dead stalk the land. Not all are human."
"Corpses are in short supply."
"There are battles far to the South-West. Have you heard of the rage dragon known as Deathbringer?"
"Naturally. I heard he was playing with some humans and bribing the Shadowlings."
"A more notable dragon died. Lasai, a Laji. A few years back."
"Oh? And the body has been taken?"
"Some necromancer going beyond his limits. The body was in pretty bad shape, I am told, but in good enough condition for a binding."
"Told by who?"
Errenos chuckled quietly. "We tired ancients do not merely sleep. We talk with each other across the miles and share our complaints with others."
"Well, which of the Greater Dead was bound?"
"We are unsure. It could be one of the bad ones, but equally it could be one of the weaker ones that just happened to be in the right place at the right time."
"Someone had better find out before anyone gets hurt."
"Correct. That is why we a co-ordinating a small wing to send and rid Emiria of the threat quickly. We would like you to be a member of the wing, along with a few others from V'skarn. Galahsin and Sashana would be useful."
"I'll go and tell them." He began to walk away, then turned again to look at the old dragon. "Makhenos?"
"Yes. We know that the two of you haven't been on the best..."
"Don't worry yourself." Vaessiros turned back to the exit. "I can control my righteous fury."
Khaivaroth flexed his new body. It was up to standards; the absence of most of his skin on one side of the face was painfully obvious, however, as were several openings in the neck through which muscle could be seen. Aesthetics weren't really something he should expect from a corpse, he noted, but he'd always been vain.
While he recognised that this body was larger than that most dragons would possess, it still felt too small for him. He'd been over three thousand feet long once, and compared to his old form this seemed rather puny. Nevertheless, a body was a body, and opportunities to escape from death didn't come very often.
Reaching out with his senses of death, he felt the presence of dead things under the ground; some buried deep, but others closer. There had been a great battle here, once. The corpse of his summoner was there too, but that was already dealt with. The necromancer who had thought himself capable of controlling Khaivaroth the Torturer now swayed like a puppet on its strings, containing the spirit of some long-dead soul but bound to the will of the dragon.
No reason to wait, though. He looked into Hades and grabbed a few choice human spirits, then pushed them into the bones that lay there. He watched as skeletal phalanges emerged from the soil and his new servants pulled themselves up, bared of flesh by years of worms and rot, but still wearing corroded armour and clutching broken weapons. Good enough.
He ordered them to march back and forth for a bit, and when satisfied, released them to mill around aimlessly. Ever the strategist, Khaivaroth was unhappy with just one type of unit, so he delved a little deeper. The corpses of ravens and eagles he returned as scouts, and undead boars snorted as they pulled themselves up onto their trotters. But- ah!
The remnants of shadowlings lay there, waiting for reanimation, and he duly obliged, grabbing out souls from amongst the clamouring dragon dead. No reason to risk a challenge, so he took the weakest and gave them bodies anew. As they took to the air beside him, he grinned widely, feeling the skin around his half-bare skull stretch and give as he did so.
An orc village lay nearby. It was a good enough practice target, and the combined tally of the orcs and their graveyard should bolster his numbers while the primitive beasts could destroy very little of his force. He sent his army marching towards the unsuspecting prey and felt a little tingle of joy- it had been all too long.
Thekros Weyr was slightly older than V'skarn, and larger, but had been abandoned several centuries ago by its inhabitants as their numbers thinned. Nevertheless, it was still important as a far-west dragon outpost, and was the best placed for the gathering that was occurring.
By the time the three V'skarn dragons had arrived, there were already a few at work, preparing armour or just talking amongst themselves. Vaessiros recognised a few (the reputations of Skellax and Fafrya preceded them), but not others; he was introduced to a young-looking white dragon named Atharos who was allegedly a master of countermagic and a crimson female called Revassa who was very fast in the air.
Makhenos arrived late, as he was wont to do, and with a retinue of bronzes. He looked around with contempt, and then sneered at Vaesirros as their gazes met. "Well, well. You again."
"I hear we're going pretty far from civilisation this time. It'd be a pity if you died with no-one to hear you begging me for mercy, hm?"
"No need for antagonism, friend. We're in this together. I just happen to be team leader."
"Says who, Makhenos? Did you decide that yourself?"
"I petitioned the elders and they agreed. Their judgement, not mine."
"I'm sure." Vaessiros turned away and allowed smoke to curl up from his nostrils towards the sky.
They set off that evening, after donning their armour and having barriers and wards reinforced. The reds and purples of the sunset shone on glinting plate as they headed through the sky, above the clouds, towards the lands of House Styrke.
"How big did they say this guy was, again?" Skellax shouted against the wind.
"Ninety metres, I was told." Galahsin flew closer to aid communication.
The dragon equivalent of an impressed whistle came as a reply. "Well, you know what they say. The bigger they are..."
Makhenos began to decelerate, stretching out his wings to brake against the air. "This is the place!" He called.
As they began to lessen altitude, Fafrya pulled up beside Vaessiros. "You have some history with Makhenos, I hear?"
"He got a friend of mine killed through arrogance and short-sightedness."
"Oh. A close friend?"
"She would have been my mate."
"I mean, Sashana's perfect and I wouldn't give her up for the world, but she meant a lot to me."
"So that's the reason."
"No problem." Vaesirros fixed his eyes firmly ahead on the darkening forests.
The stars twinkled far above in the sky, looking down upon the hills and forests of Emiria. The moon was new and just a dark shadow in the starlight, barely visible at all. Set in their pitch-black veil of darkness, the stars seemed even more numerous and even more alive.
Sebastian looked up at them from below, picking out the constellations as his eyes drifted across them. He removed his bow and quiver from his back and then lay down on the grass, the better to see the sweep of the firmament, and sighed quietly but contentedly.
The empty house where they were taking shelter was well-placed; a mansion but not near any farms. Probably a holiday residence for a nearby noble. Whoever owned it, it was empty right now, yet the wine cellar was fully stocked. He could hear merriment and shouting from inside as inebriation took hold of his fellow mercenaries, but he felt to urge to join in. Sentry duty wasn't so bad.
He concentrated on the stars once again, and went over the imagined shapes in his head. The otter, the altar, the archer...
A sudden flash distracted him, and he sat up to look, only to see a gout of flame crashing into the thatched roof of the house and set it alight. There was the distant sound of hundreds of things clattering against each other and Sebastian saw the outline of massed ranks of soldiers appearing over the hill, marching down towards them. A number of small dragons wheeled overhead.
He grabbed his quiver and tied it back on, then took hold of his bow and nocked an arrow. His colleagues were stumbling out of the door in panic, armed but not armoured, holding their arms to their faces to hold out the smoke that poured out of the doorway. The brightness of the fire on the roof grew as it spread slowly over dry straw.
For a moment he considered rushing over to them, but the sight of a diving dragon made him think better of it. Another burst of flame, this time surrounding his comrades and immolating them. The few who had evaded the fire staggered onwards, only to be met by a regiment of clattering warriors that sliced them down as they stood.
The next thing that happened was a surprise to Sebastian. The dead, both burnt and stabbed, got back up on their feet and took hold of their weapons again, then joined the rear of the procession. What witchcraft was this? Necromancy?
A grim expression replaced the surprise on his face, and he crouched down, hoping to make out a robed or cloaked figure amongst those standing. He guessed a necromancer would wear some kind of gown or cape, anyway. It seemed to suit them.
But dragons? Were they undead too, or were they controlling the undead, or were they complicit in whatever was going on? He peered deeper into the ranks, arrow at the ready. Killing the summoner should send all the restless souls back to Hades. That's what tavern stories said, anyway.
There was a realisation that he didn't know all that much about the undead, or magic, or much beyond conventional warfare and its rewards.
A massive dragon- far larger than the house- landed with a soft thump and rose up on its hind legs before the ranks of the half-rotten and the skeletal warriors. It inspected the new additions and Sebastian's heart sunk as he noted that he was hardly capable of taking on a dragon necromancer. He also wondered whether it would be able to detect his life-force- or whatever- from this distance, and his heartbeat quickened.
It looked around penetratingly at the forest and then took off again. Its army stirred and recommenced their march behind it, leaving Sebastian amongst the leaves and branches, alone.
After a few minutes of deliberation, he got up from his hiding place but stayed low and began to follow them.
The dragons settled down by the lake, by a series of very long series of ruts in the ground indicative of something very big having been dragged from the water. They noted the blurred border of a magical circle and a votive candle half-buried in the dirt. It was almost dawn and the surface of the lake was a dark, smooth blue.
"Some serious necromancy went on here, all right." Skellax scanned the ground and placed a front paw into one of the larger prints. "Wow, this guy is big."
Makhenos looked over to the horizon. "We missed him by a day and a half."
Atharos tapped a claw on Vaessiros' shoulder. "Some reanimation occurred here; I can detect the aftertaste."
A shrug. "Anywhere from a dozen to a few hundred. Hard to tell. Not just humanoids, either. From over by those hills-" he pointed- "some dragons, or at least dragon-relatives got the treatment."
"Nah, only a few. I'm guess four, five."
"Good to know. Anything to be worried about?"
He shook his head. "They wouldn't stand a chance against us. As I understand it we're just here to protect the lives of members of younger races anyway."
Makhenos had thudded over. "That's right. Damage prevention. There are some sizeable settlements nearby, all human."
Vaessiros turned back to the lake, and noticed Sashana. He walked over to her side, then allowed her to lean against him, stretching out a protective wing over her back. "Something the matter?"
She looked wistfully out over the waters. "We're out here fighting zombies when we could be stopping the mad rampage of that Deathbringer, who has destroyed so many beautiful and proud things."
"You thinking of the Laji?"
"Yeah. The world's lost a little of its innocence with that departure. It's bad enough without some idiot shoving a Greater Dead into a corpse which deserved to rest in peace."
"He got his comeuppance, I'm betting."
She shook her head slowly. "That's not important, though."
Vaessiros looked steadily at her. "Let's fix things, then. You coming?"
She sighed and then moved back out from underneath his pinions. "Alright."
Bad news tended to put a damper on things, even to Khaivaroth. The reanimated Shadowlings- now a dozen in number- clustered around him as he considered the news. A wing of dragons, chosen from the Weyrs? The Weyrs might not be what they once were, but still he doubted that he could take on this force.
He gave the order to his servants to find or craft bows. His army had swelled to a thousand soldiers, some infantry, some cavalry, along with a number of animal-derived undead, including dogs, boar, and ravens. The rotting birds wheeled around him like a living cloud, cawing dissonantly.
Considering his options, he quickly ruled out attempting to ally with or manipulate Deathbringer. He remembered that rage dragon even from his own time, and the esteem that he had been held in. Even a Great Dragon, as Khaivaroth had been, would have had difficulty tackling him, and he was notoriously difficult to trick or channel.
A greater number of Shadowling corpses would be useful, but the living ones tended to cluster together in Deathbringer's citadels, in very large numbers. That, too, wouldn't be possible.
The town they were heading towards would provide them with an extra few thousand soldiers. The best precautions Khaivaroth could take were increasing the number of archers in his force and enchanting their arrows for dragonscale penetration. But he was not the enchanter he had once been, and even spelled arrowheads usually failed to make much of an impression on dragons in their prime.
As for him personally taking on the enemy; he might be able to slay one or two if they came alone, but a massed attack would certainly overwhelm him. It depended on the strength of his foes, naturally, but he was nothing if not cautious.
What did that leave him with, then?
After the subjugation of this settlement, he would head into the mistlands.
The dragons continued their flight, moving over the ruins of House Styrke. The fires were all long since extinguished, either from lack of fuel or by rain, but the evidence of the destruction they had wrought was still there- the charred and blackened houses and homesteads, the broken castle with its front torn open and boulders scattered across the courts.
Makhenos shrugged in midair. "Humans. There are always more of them."
"They might have stopped this Greater Dead already had they not been destroyed. This was a warrior house."
"Or they might have simply served to bolster the ranks of the undead. There's no reason to jump to the conclusion that they would have won."
"You underestimate the tenacity of mankind, Makhenos." Galahsin was frowning.
"Tenacity? They survive through numbers alone. We could exterminate them all if we wished."
The clouds were white and puffy around them, drifting past free of cares or worries. The mountain-like citadel of Deathbringer was visible even from this distance, but they would not be going any closer to it for this voyage.
In the centre of the mistlands lay a circle of barrows; easily mistaken for smooth natural hills but altogether more sinister. This place had been a kingdom once, proud and mighty, one of those emerging after the Dawn War. But the centuries had brought only diminishing power and increasing decay, and eventually their great wooden castles rotted away and the fires in their temples burnt out.
Their kings lay resting within these huge cairns, surrounded by the corpses of thousands of warriors in armour both red and black, with swords as tall as themselves and horses decked in steel mail. They awaited the resurrection their priests had promised- their land had paid great attention to the secrets of life and how to restore it. But the shambling corpses that were produced were abominations, not the ancient kings restored, so those magicians responsible were executed and their bodies buried within the swamps.
The barrow lords awaited the day when this art would be perfected and they would be restored. And they would be restored, but not in the way they fancied they would- it was their fate to become the servants of another, and just as their serfs had served them in life, they would serve the necromancers who had failed them in death.
Khaivaroth noted that there was already an undead here, at the centre of the circle of graves. He landed there, having his army halt outside, and cast the topsoil aside with magic, revealing the blanched skeleton of a lich. Iron chains around its body flared and then broke.
The magical fire in the lich's eyes rekindled as he turned to face his discoverer. "You have freed me. I owe you a..."
The dragon grabbed the lich and lifted him into the air, holding him just in front of his snout and staring into the wizard's sockets with one socket and one pale eye of his own. "There is nothing you can do for me that I cannot do myself, human."
"Ah, dragonkin, but I have become more than human. I am imm..."
"Cease your self-denial. Your mind and bones are those of a human and a human you are. Like all others of your race, you disgust me with your dishonesty and misled ambition." Khaivaroth spat the words.
"Surely I may help you somehow?"
He let go of the lich and allowed it to fall then crumple to the ground. "Perhaps."
Skeletal hands reached out as he attempted to pick himself back up. "I will do anything."
"What is your name, human? And how long have you been dead?"
The lich dusted off his robes and held his head higher. "I am Oktamadas Vetenger, personal magician of King Turzas, who has lain in the ground for two thousand years."
"Two thousand years of self-deception." Khaivaroth mused, then took the lich and crushed him in one giant paw. As the spirit fled its bones, he took from it its magical power and added it to his own, then took a particularly weak restless spirit from Hades and forced it into the skeleton, which shuffled over to join the ranks of armour-clad warriors.
The dragon then raised himself high and began to form black circles in the air around him, grabbing the Dead by the handful and throwing them into the bodies all around the cairns, as well as those in the cairns themselves, performing thousands of reanimations and then watching the ground split open in a hundred places while his new warriors, armoured red and black and wielding swords as tall as themselves, formed ranks before him. Undead horses were mounted and formed up alongside his cavalry. The chariots of the barrow lords burst out from the stones of the cairns, manned by the resurrected kings and their charioteers.
The clattering quietened and then ceased as each figure found its place. His army stood completely still, rags which had been banners flying this way and then the other on the breezes, and the absence of breath weighing heavily on the hills and bogs.
Sebastian watched the ritual with a growing sense of fear, his bow still to hand, from a twisted thicket in the swamp. One of the undead scout ravens was almost directly overhead, so he could not move, but felt the urge to run away as fast as he could.
It was then that a Wisp flitted up to him and carefully extended a camouflage field over the thicket, so that to all non-magical eyes he was now invisible. The little bright creature orbited his head for a few moments and then shot off away from the cairns, clearly indicating that he should follow.
So he did, and he tried to keep the little splashes of his boots moving through the water as quiet as possible. His clothes were soaked but it did not bother him much, as long as his bowstring remained dry.
Other Wisps, of many colours, gathered around him, all leading him to some destination deeper in the mists. It was unlikely that he'd be able to refind the undead army again if he turned back now anyway. But still, he felt a little odd not following those clattering ranks after so many days of tracking and watching.
The little globes of light began to slow and congregate above a large, distorted tree on a small island amongst the water. It was tall, and thick, and its roots formed a kind of natural doorway that some of the Wisps had begun to enter. He followed the stream inside, and found himself in a rather spacious, bulbous hollow in the Earth that was surprisingly dry. He noted the walls, which appeared to be naturally grown wood. Reaching out a hand, he felt along the smooth bark.
"This base was sung from the tree that marks it."
He wheeled around to see a female Alfa standing there, with a longbow over her shoulder. She walked over.
"You saw the army that the dragon necromancer is building, yes? What's your name?"
Self-consciousness suddenly filled his mind. "I, uh... Sebastian." His accent sounded rough even to him now.
She motioned for his bow, and he handed it over without really thinking. She turned it over in her hands. "Not exactly a work of art."
"It's good enough."
"Hm." She looked back up at him. "You couldn't kill many undead with this."
"No. If you fired point-blank, you might be able to shatter a skull, but otherwise you're pretty helpless."
"And you're not?"
She gave him his bow back and then took her own out, sliding a finger along the white wood and the glyphs in its surface. "The bow's enchanted for both accuracy and increased power. The arrows-" She removed the arrow which had been holding up her hair, and it all fell down around her shoulders- "are enchanted to banish any undead they hit, and to set them on fire. Just in case."
"Even the dragon? The big one?"
She shook her head, frowning. "No. But the skeletons, or the scouts."
He raised an eyebrow. "So you think you, with what, thirty arrows, could make a serious dent in their force?"
"Oh no, not alone." A dozen other alfa stepped into view from the shadows. "But maybe together we could get the one holding all those corpses together."
A tremendous explosion pealed like thunder across the land behind the dragons, and they wheeled round to face it. Deathbringer's citadel had been replaced by a fireball hundreds of metres wide, the ground cracked and split around it, and then the fireball was covered by a dusty mushroom cloud reaching up into the sky.
"So. One problem solved?" Asked Atharos.
Vaessiros slowly shook his head. "When someone's been around as long as Deathbringer, I always make sure to see the body before passing judgement."
"Should we turn back and find it, then?"
Makhenos came up to them. "The Weyrs will send another wing for that. We must keep to our assigned mission until told otherwise. Fafrya, you go back anyway."
"Alright." She wheeled round and headed back to the Weyr.
They continued on, and the horizon blurred and darkened as it was blanketed by mist. Gnarled trees stuck up from the boggy ground and the sounds of the forest were replaced by a brooding quietness, occasionally disrupted by a frog's bark or a splash.
"The mistlands. Not a bad hiding place."
Atharos closed his eyes. "I can still feel their presence. We'll be able to find them alright."
"Ok. Lead on."
Khaivaroth felt two of his minions being banished like two little jabs against his skin. Casting a scanning spell, he watched the waves of magical energy shoot through the trees and thickets, and then a few traces return. Just a small force, humanoid. Likely alfa rangers. Nothing really serious.
He sighed and dispatched a single undead Shadowling, accompanied by a few cavalry. He didn't expect to kill them all, but he wanted to make it clear that he knew they were there.
Sitting back, he contemplated what they might be attempting. A distraction from the attack by the dragons from the Weyrs? Unlikely. These alfa were probably those already in the swamp. An actual attack? Similarly irrational. He had many times more troops than they had arrows, and he had dragons.
Perhaps they had listened to too many minstrels and were going straight at him. He chuckled quietly, and then waited patiently for them to arrive.
Sebastian felt the dragon's shadow pass over him. It was big- maybe thirty metres- but not as large as its master. They all crouched down to avoid notice, and kept arrows nocked to their bows.
Once it was gone, they continued their forwards creep, keeping to the thickets and bushes.
A patrol of skeletal cavalry, decked in black and red armour, clattered along in front of them.
"They know we're here."
"But they don't know exactly where they are?"
"Right. Don't shoot; it would just reveal our location. Stay out of sight."
The silhouette of the massive dragon appeared in the mist, one eye gleaming as it watched them approach. A semicircle of skeletal warriors stood behind it, and undead wolves barked raspily, facing towards them.
They drew up their bows, Sebastian too, and aimed at Khaivaroth. He sighed- a deep rumble.
"You don't know much about necromancy, do you?"
The alfa to his left turned his head to speak to Sebastian. "Don't listen! He'll try to trick us."
"For example, you probably believe that my presence is required to sustain my army. Not so; once one of the Dead is placed in a body, and its master killed, it just goes on a rampage. And since undead of the one species tend to stick together, that's a lot of rampaging Dead. Sure, my dragons and humans would turn on each other, but the dragons that survived (and I assume most would) would be pretty dangerous."
Sebastian loosed one of the enchanted arrows, and it arced through the air with a quiet whistle before bouncing off Khaivaroth's stolen hide with a thump.
"And there's also that, yes. You can't kill me anyway."
From behind the group came a rank of armoured undead, and then another, and another. The reanimated Shadowlings were visible ahead, and two came down to land facing the alfa.
"So, anything you want to say before you're recruited for my army?"
"I'll kill myself first!" Yelled one alfa.
"Fine by me; the corpse is just as viable." Another sigh. "Perhaps I should have provided you with a potential escape route, just for fun. I didn't think of it at the time."
Sebastian had nocked another arrow and now fired it at Khaivaroth's face. The alfa did the same, and thanks to the fire-spell on each shaft the dragon's skull was now set alight.
The great head, burning ghostly yellow and white, swivelled downwards. Its remaining eye shrivelled away, and the remaining skin began to peel off its skull. "Hm."
A hundred cream-white, foot-long teeth were revealed and then a stream of phantasmal, screaming magic poured from its mouth, crashing into the rangers and leaving only white-eyed corpses staring up into the mist-obscured sky. Khaivaroth thought a spell and they stood up again, then shuffled to the rear of his ranks.
He looked into the swamp now, and at the reflection of his still-burning skull. "This actually looks quite impressive. I'll keep it."
Runes flared then disappeared on his skull and the flames became even more ghostly. Sustained by magic, their tongues whipped in the air and crackled softly. He grinned widely and then got back to co-ordinating the construction of his fortress.
Revassa saw the undead army first, and swung round to inform the others. A number of arrows were fired after her, one of which stuck into the back of her leg, but she ignored it.
"I've found them. A mile ahead, building a big wooden fortress."
"A wooden fortress? Has he forgotten that we're dragons?" Smoke coiled from Makhenos' nostrils as he grinned widely. "Come, let's start the fire."
As they began to accelerate through the air, increasing velocity in preparation for the dive, the reanimated Shadowlings rose to meet them.
"Split up!" Roared Makhenos, as he flew full pelt into one dead Shadowling, grabbing its tail and swinging it around though it was as big as himself, so that it smashed into another and cracked its spine. He then let go; one corpse fell to the ground, still undead but unable to fly, and the other groggily attempted to turn to face him again.
Revassa drew the arrow from her leg and stabbed it into the skull of her opponent, allowing the skull to crack open and the Dead spirit to leave the body with a sigh. She then turned to face another only to find it already on her, forcing her to decrease altitude, trying to find a purchase on her gleaming armour with its claws. The lightning she cast from her own paws had no effect.
Galahsin grabbed it by the neck and snapped it backwards, then breathing a jet of flame onto its underbelly. It fell away and splashed loudly into a few seconds later. He turned to Revassa. "Okay?"
"Yeah. Here comes another!"
They both launched gouts of fire together, which crashed into the Shadowling and outlined its form with angry red. The flesh fell away and one wing was left as spindly bones, so that it began to spin out of control.
Skellax was ripping the innards out of another, and then called a flaming rock from the sky that smashed a Shadowling into pieces. "Just like old times!" He yelled, grinning, and then allowed an attacker to impale itself on his viciously spiked armour plates.
Meanwhile, Sashana was locked in a death grip with one of the reanimated dragons. Her leg talons cut deep, scraping long red gouges from its underbelly, but it was unaffected. It tried to bite her neck, but its fangs slipped off her armour, and she breathed fire into its eye. The jet entered through one socket and exited from the other, and its grip became limp. She squeezed out and allowed it to drop like a stone.
Atharos sent out a magical lance of light from his eyes that shredded the Shadowling charging towards him, then dodged the sweeping pinions of another. He did a backwards rolls in midair that left him facing the rear of his attacker and then used the same spell to incinerate its body.
Vaessiros crushed a Shadowling skull with his tail and then headbutted another in the underbelly, ripping its wings off one after the other and then immolating the falling body. Roaring with anger, he swooped onto the back of another and stabbed his claws through its eyes, then punched it in the jaw with a closed paw. It cracked and the body became dead once more.
Tired, and panting, the wing reformed. "Alright. It's downhill from here." Makhenos pulled his wings in close and began to dive, followed by the other dragons.
Khaivaroth watched them approach, his army assembled around him. A thousand skeletal and rotting arms moved in synchrony to point their bows at the growing dots. Then, bowstrings were pulled back and arrows nocked, and then a cloud of enchanted arrows flew out to meet the dragons.
They bounced off a collaborative magical shield and fell, sticking into the mud in many different angles, having failed to achieve their purpose.
The next two barrages failed the same way, and the fourth was cut off prematurely by half a dozen massive balls of flame crashing into their ranks, sending bodies flying or simply incinerating them. The dragons followed up with extended jets, like flamethrowers, and then crashed bodily into the skeletons, crushing them under their own weight. With the undead disposed of, they formed a circle around the dragon necromancer and began to close in.
"Ah, we meet at last." Khaivaroth showed no sign of hostility. "You've destroyed my army and left me powerless; what more do you want?"
Makhenos narrowed his eyes. "You could just as easily raise another. We were sent to kill you and so we shall. I'll banish you all the way to true death!"
"Me? After all I've done for Mythos? How ungrateful."
"What did you ever do for Mythos?" Atharos was incredulous.
"I'm an old dragon. Very old. I fought alongside Kalessaros the Black and helped him defeat the Alliance of Khongrr, and in doing so saved the whole world from destruction."
Vaessiros cocked his head. "What's your name, necromancer?"
"I am Khaivaroth the Torturer. You should have heard of me."
"I know of you. You were one of the Great Dragons, and you did fight the Alliance. They say you were killed by Balthos himself, and returned as one of the Greater Dead by Mortis. In doing so, you became one of the first ever necromancers. The third most powerful there ever was."
"Fifth, really. But yes, that's me."
"I was surprised he had managed to build such an army so quickly. Most would require years to achieve what you did in a week."
"In fairness, I have had a lot of practice." Khaivaroth smiled, the fire that covered his head blazing. "So; what will you do with me?"
"Let me ask you honestly, Khaivaroth." Skellax rose up on his hind legs. "Do you think you could defeat us all?"
The Great Dragon shook his head, and the flames trailed after it. "Not all of you, no. Though I would be able to cause you a great deal of trouble."
"Then let us cease this prattle!" Makhenos' nostrils began to belch smoke. "Time to end you, Khaivaroth."
He leapt at the necromancer, wings wide and fangs bared, preparing to slash. His target, three times as large, batted him aside with an arm and then stomped down on the winded dragon with one foot, shifting his weight on top of that leg. Makhenos shrieked with enormous volume and slashed at the unyielding talons.
From the other side, Skellax and Atharos attacked together. A dozen light lances and lightning chains hit Khaivaroth's side then was followed by the impact of Skellax's spiked body crashing into him. The Great Dragon's body gave slightly, but then tensed again, and he swept his wing across his back, dislodging the dragon warrior.
Revassa grabbed Khaivaroth's skull, her scales impervious to the flames, and reached into his eye sockets. She groped around inside but found nothing, and then the flames turned black and she screamed in pain; the dark fire clung to her as she retreated, but Vaessiros burned it away with a jet. He then turned his flamethrower on Khaivaroth, Galahsin and Sashana doing the same at his side, and their streams of raging incineration splashed over the necromancer's scales.
Atharos formed runes in the air around him and began to create a powerful banishing spell, so Galahsin and Skellax drew back to protect him. Makhenos wriggled out from under the Great Dragon's foot, only to have his neck grabbed in a massive paw and then twisted tightly, causing him to scream again.
Khaivaroth raised the leader of the dragon wing up to his mouth and then bit down upon his head, severing it roughly. He dropped Makhenos' headless corpse to the ground and then turned to the horrified group; just as he had wished, Atharos' spell faded away around him. "Please, continue."
They attacked with renewed vigour, all from the side, sending the Great Dragon reeling and knocking him onto his back. Galahsin and Vaessiros grabbed his skull and began to pull at it, trying to break it off from the spine. Meanwhile Skellax and Revassa, Sashana providing magical support, tore into his wings and disabled them.
Khaivaroth felt a new banishing spell forming around Atharos and knew he had very little time. Gathering together all the magic he could, he visualised forming it into a sphere around him and then forced it together. His thoughts were replicated in reality, and a black sphere imploded around him, crushing his body to a point and then exploding again in a shower of ash and a wave of magic.
The dragons settled in the gentle fall of grey flakes. Atharos drew his energy back from the half-cast spell and joined them. "Why did he do that? Teleportation?"
"No; the undead cannot teleport. He destroyed his body." Vaessiros took a pawful of the ash and allowed it to flow between his claws.
Sashana replied. "Firstly, to prevent him being banished into true death. He has returned to his original circle. Secondly, to send a message of some kind. Didn't you feel it?"
"Yes, but it wasn't like any communication magic I know."
"Indeed. It was targetted, as well. A column that went straight upwards and straight downwards."
Vaessiros and Sashana looked at each other. "Hm." He said, at last.