The following is not the finalised edition. It hasn’t been formally edited and will likely contain errors.
The once tranquil sanctuary of Gren resounded with anxiety. At first Kettna thought the croaking frogmen were blurting indiscriminately, but there was a more complicated pattern to it. Were the Muden issuing orders or relaying a description of the threat? Perhaps both. There were so many layers to the croaking language. There was something else too. Another sound was beating a patient rhythm beneath the cacophony. Kettna squinted across the lake through the flocks of scattering birdlife. The largest crannog on the sacred lake was swarming with Muden villagers. Colourfully painted frogmen drummed upon poles that sunk into the water, playing a rhythm in perfect synchronicity. It wasn’t just music they were making. This was wild magic. Shamanic power resonated across the water and Kettna felt the weave thrill with urgency.
The lakeside by the altar came alive. A circle of formidable warriors burst from the water, brandishing tridents and spears and warily scanning for threats in every direction. Once satisfied that the area was clear, they croaked in unison, neck skins puffing out like bellows. From within the warriors’ defensive ring the water bulged and a giant turtle breached the surface. Mounted upon a reed saddle woven with glowing green stones was the largest frogman Kettna had ever seen. He wore a silver crown set with lapis and a suit of chitinous lamellar armour that gushed with elemental power. His scarred hide was as dark as the bottom of the lake and his warty countenance frothed with anger.
The chieftain thrust a whitewood sceptre in the air and croaked at Minni from on high. Amongst a diatribe of Muden expressions Kettna couldn’t understand, the chieftain also gurgled some choice profanities in the reik language.
“Don’t blame me for the dragons,” replied Minni. “I’m not their bloody mother.” The rogue hastily rolled up the incriminating letter in an oiled leather and stuffed it under her belt with a sly wink in Kettna’s direction. “Talk some sense into the old bullfrog would you, Qarim. I can’t croak well enough without saying the wrong thing. I’d hate to insult his highness.”
Qarim refused to indulge the rogue’s childish games. The elder dragon was transfixed by the storm rolling above the range to the south. It was growing unnaturally fast and straining the weave unlike any summer thunderhead she had witnessed. Great magics were afoot.
The chieftain barked and croaked, thumping his fleshy fist and jabbing his sceptre in Minni’s direction for the most part. Elrin and Kettna were jabbed at too, but Qarim was spared such disgrace. As angry as he was, the chieftain wouldn’t dare. Instead, the chieftain took a great gulp of air and with eyes bulging, raised the white sceptre to the sun. His throat puffed in and out, creaking and groaning a mystic song upon the massive head of Ipoch. The sceptre reflected a beam of white light upon the stone face of the Sunken God and the monument trembled, shaking loose sand and debris. Ipoch’s frog-like mouth shut, grinding a low croak of annoyance and the entire head agitated the moist earth, burrowing down until it was completely buried. With a swish of the chieftain’s sceptre, green tendrils snaked out from the surrounding thickets and new seedlings grew from the rich soil. Soon a lush grove concealed any evidence of the Sunken God. The stone altar wasn’t forgotten either. Moss and lichen grew over every surface and white orchids cascaded over the edge like a wild tablecloth.
The chieftain croaked with satisfaction, surveying the works he had accomplished. His retinue of guards puffed their throats in awe, issuing a collection of popping sounds akin to applause. Unfortunately the chieftain’s pleasant attitude was short-lived. Catching sight of Minni crossing her arms and scowling raised his ire once more. The croaking rage was so intense Kettna feared the Muden leader would fall from his saddle should he go on any longer. To punctuate the end of his diatribe the chieftain stabbed the magic sceptre at each of them, even Qarim this time, then pointed North, up and over the mountains.
“What was that all about?” asked Elrin. “What did we do to make him so angry?”
“Don’t worry about it.” Minni waved her hand like she was swatting away a fly. “It’s the same every time. The old bullfrog puts on a big show waving his magic wand around. He’s the big bossman, protecting his people. Cross him, and I die, on and on he goes. He tells me to bugger off in a multitude of ways. This time you’re included too. It’d be rude otherwise. After every prophecy I make he goes back to his people and announces that he’s had tea and biscuits with Yoni himself. The chieftain knows his politics.”
“Tea and biscuits with a god?” Kettna laughed. How could the rogue be trusted when she furnished her stories with so much fantasy? “Surely, that’s not a literal translation. He’s angry, that’s for certain. But where’s the nuance? What’s he really saying?”
Minni smirked at Kettna. “You think I’m making this up? I tell it true, though I doubt he does. He spouts my prophecy to the Muden then comes over and tells me off. Ungrateful old toad.”
“But he wants us to go North,” insisted Kettna. “Why?”
Minni sighed. “He reckons Yoni told him to make us to go to Calimska. It’s bollocks though. He’s been telling me that forever.”
“Perhaps this time you should listen.” Qarim took his eyes off the storm to consider his dragon allies circling high above. “Perhaps this time, I should listen too.”
Kettna, Minni and Elrin followed the elder’s golden gaze. The number of dragons had bloomed, flying in an ever tighter spiral over the sacred lake. They jostled for position and barked insults, snarling and spitting at each other. The agitation grew until Qarim sang a baritone warble into the sky, calling for calm amongst the guardians.
It was answered by death from on high.
Hidden in the glare of the midday sun far above, three blue dragons plunged through the centre of guardians. None could intercept the assassins’ silent yet meteoric descent. Each blue dragon cast a net of arcing energy that ripped through the sky toward Qarim and the companions. The chieftain’s retinue escaped beneath the lake in a churn of bubbles while Qarim swept his purple and gold wings around the companions in a protective dome. The Elder’s face winced as the barrage of energy scorched across his back and lit up his wings, pulsing over the leathery membranes before dispersing into the ground.
Qarim lifted his head and roared, seizing the weave with his mind and shaking the sky with his authority. An Elder attacked is an Elder released. Your challenge shall be your demise.
The blue dragons pulled up and retreated across the lake, narrowly escaping a volley of stones and arrows from the Muden village. They trilled an ear-splitting message to the heavens and lightning flashing in the storm. Out of the thunderhead emerged a score of blue dragons, flying at least twice as high as Qarim’s allies. They tore toward Gren like spears of malice hurled by Drensel Tath, himself.
The circle of guardian dragons scattered, shrieking with terror and roaring in defiance. Flame and magic flared. Treachery scorched the sky. Dragons who once flew in unity turned on their comrades and Qarim’s defenders imploded. Those that weren’t slaughtered in the sky, flew up and out, trying to gain altitude and draw off the assassins in their ranks.
“I am betrayed!” snarled Qarim. “We must leave at once to secure the bloodstone armies.”
“We have to protect Gren,” insisted Minni. “You’re a damn Elder, Qarim. Burn them to ash!”
Shrieks of warning broke above them. A silver dragon plunged toward Qarim, its green wing membranes tucked tight like a hunting falcon. A copper dragon with black and bronze mottling dived after it. The silver dragon summoned a lance of necrotic black energy and threw it at Qarim then banked out of the dive. The mottled copper sped after the silver assassin, screaming cold fury on wings that glowed with an azure enchantment. The copper cut through the sky so fast its lithe body became a blue blur against the sky.
Qarim stood tall on his hind legs and raised an open palm against the deadly lance. His giant wings unfurled glowing white with accumulated energy. Magic surged through his chest and along his arm. A beam of pure destruction exploded from his clawed palm and annihilated the assassin’s evil lance not a moment too soon. The beam sped on into the atmosphere and burst in ball of light that outshone the sun.
Kettna covered her eyes from the blast, but could not cover her sense of the weave. Such concentrated magic was beyond any destructive force she had ever witnessed. The Elder dragon could obliterate an entire city should he choose it. That scared her to death, yet at the same time she hungered to learn the arcane secrets Qarim kept.
When Kettna’s sight cleared, the sky had become a battlefield. Dragons scoured the sky with fire and lightning. Blood misted in the chaos of claws and magic, spattering the world below. The mottled copper dragon caught up and struck the silver assassin like a comet, grappling and biting in a blur of azure magic. They splashed down in the lake, thrashing as they sank below.
“We fly!” Qarim swept up all three of the companions in a cage of claws. He placed them atop his wide shoulders. “Hold on and prepare for battle. I’m forbidden to attack another of my kin unless they attack me first. You three are not bound by such restraint.”
There was no option to argue. Qarim ran up the mountain at a gallop, jostling his human cargo with every step. Kettna gripped the golden spines along Qarim’s neck and squeezed her thighs tight against him. He clawed and climbed up the cliffs until only blue sky and battle loomed above. Qarim craned his neck to the heavens and bellowed a courageous dragon song. Across the sky he was answered by a chorus of allies. The weave sung with them, magic entwined around each note, bolstering the honourable and shaking the enemy with doubt.
Qarim leaped out over the lake on glorious wings, embracing the wind like a trusted friend. The golden wyrm beat down hard, but the wind wasn’t friend enough. There wasn’t enough of an updraft and the wyrm struggled to lift his enormous body higher into the sky.
“Sure you aren’t too old for this?” yelled Minni.
The rogue’s insolence infuriated Kettna. However, Qarim managed to chuckle, though his breathing heaved through each stroke. He could not speak under such strain, so his mind reached out.
Too old? The wind is older than I. It does just fine.
Kettna shot Minni a frown, but the rogue paid no heed. Minni pointed up and to the east. Seeing their chance, a pair of blue dragons had disengaged from their battle with a stocky bronze and were coming for Qarim. Though the blues were only a third of Qarim’s size, their gnashing white fangs were more than willing to carve into the Elder and their claws would make quick work of the soft skinned humans. The blue pair dodged a gauntlet of battling dragons, rolling left and right as they pushed in for the kill.
Kettna screamed at Qarim with her mind. Two enemies above! Dive!
Qarim flew on without flinching. Without even a glance above.
Hadn’t he heard? Was her mind connection frayed by panic?
At the last possible moment Qarim opened a blink portal. They were sucked into an abyssal compression of space and time where all was darkness, still and silent. That was until Qarim opened a second portal back to Oranica. The black void ejected them with nauseating efficiency and they reappeared in the very place they were moments before. The confused blue dragons were now below and perfectly lined up to suffer the full force of Qarim’s flaming breath. The heat was so great, blue scales buckled and burned, falling away with hunks of charred flesh.
The unfortunate pair of blues plunged into the lake and were set upon by the frogmen with harpoons and spears. The Muden fought with everything they had against the dragons. Any dragon swooping low over the crannogs felt the sting of stones and the bite of arrows. The shamanic drummers had summoned elephant-sized toads to protect Gren. More and more of the enormous toads bobbed to the surface of the lake, spitting great gobs at the invading dragons.
While the blue dragons seized the sky, green dragons had surrounded Gren from below. The thick forest bordering the lakes choked in caustic clouds, wilting foliage and exposing the villagers who were fleeing the crannogs. Young and old ran screaming into the lake to save their sensitive skin, but most didn’t survive. The smaller greens came out of hiding to feast on the floating muden corpses. The larger ones took to the sky to join the battle above. The toads took particular interest in the vibrant green winged dragons, spitting up at them in a frenzy. A few fell in a tangle of mucous, but many more escaped.
Qarim brought his elemental magic to bear and summoned a gust of magic wind to speed them aloft. The golden dragon crooned and coaxed the air to rush them above the chaos of the battle and ahead of the few dragons brave enough to pursue an Elder. The song of the wind was a tune of change, a spirited melody of adaption. Kettna’s blade thrilled in resonance with the tune, humming in metallic harmony with Qarim.
The sorceress touched the bloodstone pommel and her mind was filled with the magic of Tetula’s voice, singing for her love. The spirit of the silver dragon inside the sword reached through Kettna and she too began to sing. She let herself go with the magic and the music followed, so too did the tears. For every uplifting note Kettna sang with Tetula and Qarim, there dipped a sadness. For each rising hope there came dismay. The wind was new love rushing in and old love passing.
Kettna cried for the dragons. She felt the pain of their separation and the crush of an ancient enduring bond. A love stronger than anything the young sorceress had ever imagined possible. The dragons’ emotions were overpowering and Kettna realised too late that she was trapped in the spell they made with their song. Kettna’s broken heart had opened without hesitation and her body had become a bridge between dimensions, one hand on Tetula’s bloodstone sword and her bare legs astride Qarim. The magic of two dragons coursed through Kettna and she did nothing to stem the flow. She gave in to the magic and every measure of her being peaked with ecstasy. Her skin tingled with chills, yet beneath the surface she burned hotter than a furnace. With every heavy breath the weave stretched her soul, filling her with more magic than ever before. More than the sorceress could fathom.
With a final thrill of magical bliss, Kettna’s spirit burst from her skin and was embraced by the weave. The sorceress drifted like an aimless kite behind her body. She watched on as her body convulsed, drowning in the magical current. Her back arched like a drawn bow and her eyes and mouth overflowed with molten silver light. The bloodstone sword glowed too, pulsing with energy as it cut through the wind and channelled Tetula’s energy around Qarim. The spirit of the ancient silver dragon flew with her golden mate, wing to wing, bodies merged and necks entwined.
The Elder dragons sung on while Elrin and Minni shouted at Qarim to stop. The song of the wind was too strong and swept their voices aside as they flew to ever higher altitudes. Kettna willed her spirit to return, but the force of the magic flowing through the mage’s body was too strong. For every effort she was pushed back further, floating behind on an increasingly flimsy etheric tether.
It was an odd experience for the sorceress to witness her own demise from on high. Kettna supposed there were worse ways. Certainly, there were less spectacular ways. Her body would not endure such a potent magical current for long. She feared for her life, but the fear was distant in her detached state of being. There was peace here, drifting in the clouds. There were no expectations. Her life seemed small and insignificant compared to the weave.
Elrin and Minni thought otherwise. They both tried to free Kettna from the spell, first yelling and then reaching to grab her. When either one tried to touch the sorceress a flare of energy zapped out, near tipping them off the dragon’s shoulders. Minni whispered in Elrin’s ear and he nodded with grim understanding. He unsheathed his dagger and raised the jewelled pommel to that of the sword. Magic arced over the dagger and along Elrin’s arm. He gritted his teeth through the pain and pressed the two bloodstones together.
In a flash of silver light, Kettna was yanked back into her body. Her limbs trembled and Minni had to help her sheath the sword lest it tumble from her grip.
Minni squeezed Kettna’s shoulder. “Take it slow now. Just find your breath.”
Kettna was drenched in sweat and tingling all over. Minni helped the sorceress wrap the cloak of constellations tighter around her body and hugged her tight.
“This is just to fight the cold,” said Minni, her warm cheek touching Kettna’s ear. “Don’t get the wrong idea.”
Kettna’s teeth chattered behind her smile. The rogue had a heart after all.
Qarim’s mind reached out and with it came a magical warmth that soothed her aching muscles.
I am sorry. I could not let her go.
The sorceress understood, for she had felt the dragons’ love too. Kettna would have sacrificed her life to keep such a love. There was no apology worth giving. She would have done the same to be reunited with her love, Rix.
The song of the wind had propelled them far above the battle for Gren and out of harms way. Not a single dragon had been able to keep up with their ascent. The storm summoned by the ambush of blue dragons crashed with thunder and lightning, engulfing the Muden wetlands. Gren was under siege. There was no way they could win against so many dragons driven by such malice.
The sorceress knew this battle was most unnatural for dragons. They were supposed to be preparing for the season’s rituals; collecting gold and positioning for a mate. They should have been fighting to claim their patch on the Hoard Islands, not fighting to claim Gren. Dragons rarely coordinated attacks, especially between different breeds. A clan of greens and blues attacking like this was unheard of. It was like some kind of military strategy. So who was their general?
Qarim twisted his neck around and eyed Kettna. He had been listening to her thoughts.
A sharp question with two ruthless answers — Zarkus and Goranuk. This madness is their creation. They’ve poisoned the minds of the young. Lured them with promises of glory under the banner of our tyrant King. Worry not of them, sorceress. They present a challenge for another day, should you live through this one. Gather your strength in the wind. You shall need it.