Story concept: Eyas Stormwolf

Written by: Eyas Stormwolf

© Eyas Stormwolf

It had become the last refuge of the Free Men; that treacherous landscape of rock and ice which generations had known as the Dragon's Lair Mountains. They numbered fewer than one thousand; some farmers, some craftsmen, all reluctant warriors in the battle against the self-proclaimed master of Eternia, King Hiss. Fleeing the terror that poisoned the land, these men and women had journeyed to the mountains, hoping that the ice would protect them from the Snake Men. Yet even the cold of the Far North did not prevent the advance of Hiss's warriors, and the battle for survival continued in the caves and valleys of the frozen landscape. It was said that Hiss had magical powers, and this was how he plundered all the regions where his kind were not meant to survive. True or not, the notion that his underlings were sustained by magic cast fear into the hearts of the Eternians.

They had risen from the deserts in the Dark Continent; their numbers growing rapidly until the stream had become a torrent. Their leader desired nothing less than total conquest, and he commanded his troops to swarm across Eternia, enslaving all races and submitting them to torture and humiliation. It had taken fewer than three years to crush the freedom and dreams of the majority of Eternians; now barely a handful of resistance movements survived, knowing that the battle was entirely one-sided. Only one kingdom was said to have defended itself against the Snake Men, and that was Avion. Yet despite their resilience, the Avians were a small community, and they simply did not have the numbers to attempt to loosen King Hiss's stranglehold on the entire planet.

Alone on a high ridge overlooking a great glacial valley, Eldor stared at the magnificent landscape, wondering how such beauty lingered under the shadow of such evil. He remembered how it felt to live without fear; as a child he had often wandered many leagues from home in pursuit of adventure, much to the annoyance of his beloved parents. And despite his habit of disappearing into the woods at every opportunity, his parents loved him dearly. When his hair had turned white at the age of six, they realised that their only child was destined for a life of greatness. They did not understand Eldor's talent, but nor did they fear it, for to be marked as a magician was the will of the Goddess, and they were proud that their boy had been chosen.

As the years passed, Eldor learned how to focus his magical abilities. He sought out all the mystics he could find and studied with them; not just magic, but also diplomacy, history and swordsmanship. Some of his tutors were flamboyant characters who thrived on their status, enjoying the awe and respect that the people gave them; others were reclusive hermits who despised contact with any but the creatures of the forests and the dream folk with whom they spoke during meditation. Eldor had absorbed all he had been taught, and by the age of thirty he had surpassed all his peers in mystical ability.

The invasion had come ten years later, and Eldor had been terrified when a swarm of Snake Men attacked the settlement in which he was staying. Yet he had slain them all, destroying them in a ball of flame before they harmed a single villager. Eldor had fled the settlement while the corpses were still smouldering. Never before had he used his magic as a weapon, and the weight of what he had done bore down upon him heavily.

Eldor looked up and stared into the sunlight. Watching the advance of seven shadows flying swiftly over the valley, he remembered how sick he had felt on that fateful day five years earlier. Since then he had destroyed more Snake Men than he cared to recall, but now inflicting death no longer challenged his morals or caused him pain. The shadows came closer, a group of hunting dragons searching for food among the hills. These days they rarely flew alone, for they too were persecuted by the Snake Men. A single dragon was capable of slaying dozens of Snake Men when the battlefield was open, and for this reason, the serpentine warriors had adopted the tactics of ambush in an attempt to suppress the strongest of all the Eternian creatures.

Detecting the scent of an animal somewhere among the trees on the valley's side, the dragons altered their course. Descending low over the trees, the dragons closed in on their prey. Eldor stared at the slope across the valley, and saw a lone bear moving from the tree-line into open ground. The animal appeared to be limping awkwardly, and as the dragons passed overhead, the bear struggled to increase speed. Eldor wondered why the bear did not attempt to return to the cover of the trees. In the next instant, the dragons dropped from the sky, their claws reaching for the doomed animal.

Suddenly a crowd of humanoids burst from the woods. Hurling dozens of spears at the dragons, the Snake Men attacked the winged beasts relentlessly, inflicting terrible wounds with bladed staves and swords that split the dragons' scales with ease. Enraged by the ambush, the dragons began to fight back, retaliating with a fearsome fury. Talons lashed out, decapitating and disembowelling the Snake Men.

Eldor had heard about these suicide squads, but this was the first time he had seen one in action. Few of the Snake Men would survive this contest, but their venom-tipped weapons had successfully inflicted devastating results. Eldor stared with disbelief as the once mighty creatures began to die. Collapsing awkwardly as the poison polluted their bodies, the dragons desperately tried to slay the remainder of their attackers. Gradually the surviving Snake Men withdrew to the trees, their work complete. Silently counting the corpses, Eldor estimated that nearly forty Snake Men had been killed by the dying dragons. Forty Snake Men and seven dragons dead in a conflict that had lasted seconds.

At that moment, a hint of movement made Eldor reconsider his count. Forty Snake Men and six dragons. One of the winged beasts was struggling to raise its head above the pile of reptilian bodies. Eldor rose silently, and began to walk along the narrow path that led away from his lookout point.

When Eldor located the dragon's track, it was evident that despite its injuries, the creature was endeavouring to traverse the landscape as swiftly as it could. Clearly unable to fly, the dragon was dragging its poisoned body through forest, leaving a trail of blood that stained the ice and rock black. Eldor followed the trail into high ground, and found himself in an icy labyrinth of caverns and crevasses.

Eldor discovered a cave whose entrance was slick with congealed blood. Clambering carefully into the entrance, Eldor peered into the darkness. He could hear the laboured, raspy breathing of the dragon, but he could not see the animal. Eldor had no wish to confront an injured dragon, so he remained at the cavern's entrance. Finding a bare patch of rock, Eldor sat down and looked away from the cave.

Hours passed before the dragon finally spoke. "What do you seek, wizard?" a deep, rumbling voice uttered from the darkness of the cavern.

"Conversation," replied Eldor.

"Dragons do not partake in idle chatter," the dragon stated. "We converse only when there is a need."

"Perhaps we should discuss your revenge," said Eldor softly. "I witnessed the slaughter of your companions."

"The Snake Men died, human. There is no need to speak of vengeance. Now leave me in peace. I must sleep."

"If you sleep you will die," responded Eldor. "I have seen your wounds, dragon. Your blood is poisoned with the venom of the serpent warriors. Allow me to help you."

"Death comes to us all," the dragon rumbled. "Perhaps I am beyond healing."

"Perhaps," remarked Eldor. "Yet that should not prevent you from accepting assistance."

"Your motives are unclear, human. Why do you offer that which you cannot give?"

Eldor shrugged his shoulders. "I make you no promises. Yet it is said that Tasek'mur'gorn himself prophecised a great alliance between dragons and men in a time of darkness."

An echoing, shuddering noise vibrated the air from within the cavern. Evidently the dragon had found Eldor's comment amusing. "You know your dragon lore, human, but I doubt the spiritual father of my race had you or me in mind when he uttered his prophecy."

"That is probably so, dragon, but it is the spirit of the philosophy that matters," replied Eldor. "If our races stand apart, we are doomed."

"So you seek not to save a dying dragon, but to draw me into battle! Your motives become clear, wizard. The Eternian dragons will not become slaves to humans!" The dying dragon's voice expressed anger despite its frailty.

Eldor paused before speaking again. The dragon was correct; the war could not be won by small resistance movements hiding like frightened hares in the meadows. Eldor needed the dragons' strength if his desire to end Hiss's reign of terror were to be fulfilled. "I speak of an alliance to restore liberty," he stated firmly. "I share the beliefs of Tasek'mur'gorn, father of all dragons and warrior for whom these mountains are named! It saddens me to learn that his descendants do not share his love of freedom." Eldor rose slowly and began to walk away from the cave.

"Among my brethren it is said that humans are impatient and unwilling to participate in debate," the dragon murmured from the darkness of the cavern. "I see that this belief is true. And while dragons are less likely to engage in conversation in the first place, on those few occasions we do, we see the discussion through to its conclusion. Stay a while longer, human. You seem to have ended this conversation without giving me your name."

Eldor stopped in his tracks. As he turned around, he saw the dragon's head emerge from the cave. Streaked with blood, the creature's face was haggard; its eyes weary and glazed. "I am Eldor, servant of the Goddess."

"Well, Eldor, servant of the Goddess, I am Kor'san'tach, injured dragon of Dragon's Lair," the dragon replied. "I am pleased to make your acquaintance. Yet I fear our meeting will be short-lived, for my body is barely alive. I regret I will be unable to join you on your quest."

"It is said among my people that dragons are too proud to ask for help when they need it," remarked Eldor. "Therefore I shall take the initiative and give you what assistance I can, if only so that our discussion may successfully reach its end."

"If you were to do so, I should be grateful," Kor'san'tach murmured.

Eldor placed his hands on the top of Kor'san'tach's head. Immediately sensing the pain that filled the dragon's body, Eldor almost stepped away, fearing he had accepted too great a challenge. "Be patient, my friend," Eldor said softly. "I have never attempted to heal a dragon before. This may take some time."

"Well I'm not going anywhere," Kor'san'tach rumbled in reply.

The turning of the seasons saw little change in the fate of the Eternians. The Snake Men's thirst for conquest grew ever stronger, and their relentless onslaught forced more families to flee their homelands for the most remote corners of the planet. Refugees continued to find their way into the mountains, longing for an escape from Hiss's minions.

Of course, the mountains offered some protection, but the newcomers quickly realised that even the harsh conditions could not hold back the Snake Men. It was some consolation that the vastness of the range prevented the serpentine warriors from hunting their prey effectively, but there were difficulties enough for the humans regardless of whether there were bands of Snake Men lurking in the foothills. Finding food was nearly impossible during the Winter months, and sometimes blizzards would keep Eldor's people trapped in their caves for days.

Yet despite the hardships, there was a growing belief that their fortunes were about to change. Rumours that Eldor had concocted a grand plan to defeat the Snake Men abounded, and although no one knew any details of the finer points of his strategy, the fact that he had introduced an intense weapons training schedule clearly implied something; at least it did in the minds of the refugees.

Eldor realised that however inaccurate their beliefs may have been, the presence of hope lifted the spirits of the people, and he had no wish to smother their survival mechanism. In truth, the grand plan that everyone spoke of was no more real than their liberty. Yes, he had befriended the dragon Kor'san'tach, and many times they spoke of crushing the venomous King Hiss, but Kor'san'tach's standing in the dragon hierarchy was too low to have any influence over the elders.

Kor'san'tach had seen the need to tackle the situation head on, but to the fathers of his kind he was 'youthful and hot-headed'. The dragons, he had been informed, had out-lived every threat to their race thus far, and to willingly go in to battle alongside humans was not a proposal to be taken seriously.

Yet despite the setbacks, Kor'san'tach's ideas were not ignored completely. He may have held no sway over the decisions of the elders, but the dragons of his generation paid much more attention to his observations. They were curious about the wizard who had saved their companion from the edge of death, and their disgust at losing their brethren to the poisoned spears of the Snake Men was too great to forget. Perhaps they were all as hot-headed as Kor'san'tach, and perhaps their unwillingness to wait for the Snake Men to pass into the pages of history was rash and unbecoming of dragons, but their frustrations at the status quo could not be suppressed.

Nevertheless, the dragons had a profound respect for their traditions, and the wisdom and guidance of the elders of the race had always been followed. Standing against a decision that had taken days or weeks of debate to reach a collective agreement, was to insult the memory of the forefathers and to risk banishment. And none of the younger generation, including Kor'san'tach, had any desire to cause irreparable rifts among their kind.

Yet there came a day when clamorous lamentations filled the air over the Dragon's Lair Mountains; the intense sadness of the dragons' voices smothering the landscape's morning beauty. Eldor had heard these cacophonous wails before, and knew the sounds were an expression of sorrow at the loss of a dragon elder. Soon Eldor would discover that Rewek'dar'morbrenn, oldest of the dragons, had been ambushed and murdered by a horde of Snake Men during the night, but for now Eldor sat at the entrance to his cave and listened to the mourning that echoed across the mountains and valleys.

The following morning saw activity unlike ever before. Scores of dragons soared over the great mountain range, their flights seemingly random but revealing a preparedness and sense of expectation. Their behaviour no longer displayed the wariness of creatures tormented by a ruthless oppressor, but the determination and presence of a race afraid of no one. As Eldor watched the dragons' flights, Kor'san'tach appeared and landed on the small plateau at the cave's entrance, his bulk filling the narrow perch entirely.

"It is time to act," Kor'san'tach stated by way of greeting.

Eldor nodded silently. "The elders have reconsidered?" he questioned.

"They have not," Kor'san'tach replied. "Yet with Rewek'dar'morbrenn slain, tradition dictates that the ruling council must be re-elected and a new leader chosen. The laws are effectively suspended during the period of mourning. Yet that is not my primary motivation for leading my brethren to war. Last night I dreamed of Tasek'mur'gorn. He spoke of the friendship forged between dragons and men."

"The alliance of fire and steel," murmured Eldor. He paused momentarily, studying Kor'san'tach's surprised reaction to the words. "I had the same vision, my friend," he added. "It is Tasek'mur'gorn's will that we join forces and take the fight to our common enemy."

Kor'san'tach nodded slowly. "Your warriors are ready?"

"Of course."

"Then let us turn the skies black."

Rising from the lava fields of the Plain of Perpetua, Snake Mountain was a formidable citadel carved from rock blacker than the darkest of starless nights. Staring across the forlorn landscape from a balcony high upon the west face of the rock, King Hiss reminded himself how much he despised the miserable landscape. Yet there was nowhere in his native desertlands that could provide such a powerful capital from which to control his world.

Indeed, the rise of the Snake Men simply would not have been possible without the mystical pool of energy that was trapped within Snake Mountain. Twenty years ago, Hiss had chanced upon the vortex, and had subsequently spent the next five years learning how to focus its energy. The Snake Men had formerly been a race on the edge of extinction, unable to survive outside the desert climate, but the vortex had changed all that. Hiss's discovery in the abandoned stronghold had completely changed the fortunes of his race.

Yet like all wells, it would not last forever. Using the vortex to create legions of warriors had diminished its power drastically. Furthermore, once Hiss's great armies were born, they needed sustenance and the ability to survive in hostile climates. Hiss's cloned warriors never ate; they were energised by the mysterious power emanating from the mountain.

The fate of his underlings was of no concern to Hiss. He had created a swarm of creatures in his own image, but they were not true Snake Men. His intention was to build a world in which his own people could live free from torment. He had succeeded in driving his enemies from the desertlands, but he had to ensure that the humans would never return. The humans and every other breed that hunted his serpentine people.

The vortex of energy might sustain his armies for another three years, but the rate at which it was weakening could not be ascertained easily. He had been alarmed to discover that his clones had a lifespan of a single year, and replacing those who died naturally or in battle was a constant task which he had not fully anticipated. He hoped that Snake Mountain's energy source would last until his people were truly liberated.

Ordering the culling had been his master plan. By murdering great numbers of Eternians, he was effectively smothering the chances of rebellion, and if his strategy worked, the only humans left alive by the time the vortex collapsed would be his slaves.

A dark band of cloud trailing across the pale sun in the west caught Hiss's attention. It hadn't been there a moment ago, and for an inexplicable reason, the leader of the Snake Men found it disquieting. Against the illumination of the setting sun, even his sharp eyes found it difficult to focus on the strange phenomenon. Even so, it did not take him long to realise that it was moving closer rapidly, and he had misidentified it.

As the shadowy line neared Snake Mountain, Hiss stared in disbelief at the swarm of dragons with their human riders advanced rapidly towards his stronghold. Confused by the sheer audacity of this assault and the unbelievable concept that humans and dragons would even consider fighting together, Hiss could barely draw himself away from the balcony. He shouted for his warriors to defend the citadel, but his generals had already seen the imminent danger and ordered their troops to arms.

Suddenly the attack was upon them and it was relentless. The legions of Snake Men camped outside the mountain stood no chance of survival, and those who were not incinerated within the first moments of the assault tried desperately to flee the battleground. The dragons swooped low over the terrified Snake Men, ripping them to pieces with giant claws.

At the head of the dragon army was Kor'san'tach, with Eldor balanced between his huge wings. The first stage of their strategy complete, they rose from the lava fields and led the dragons to Snake Mountain. Finding numerous cavern entrances, the winged creatures penetrated the stronghold, hunting for more Snake Men to kill. Their human riders dismounted, and chased the fleeing warriors down the narrow passages inside the mountain which the dragons could not enter.

The scene was one of complete carnage as the dragons and humans systematically destroyed Hiss's cloned warriors. Offering no resistance, the Snake Men fled deeper into the caverns, trampling over eachother in futile attempts to escape.

Eldor had sensed the vortex of energy within Snake Mountain long before their attack had begun, and now inside the citadel, he began to search for it. As the caverns became narrow passages, he commanded Kor'san'tach to allow him to dismount. The hunt for Hiss was a task he would have to complete alone.

Eldor's search took him far into the deepest parts of the mountain, illuminated by thousands of torches and damp in the steaming humidity of the volcanic matter that boiled far underground. The trapped energy intrigued him, for it was not malevolent, despite Hiss's ability to focus it for his own purposes.

As he entered a low passageway, Eldor saw his quarry ahead. Hiss glanced back and realised that his pursuer was closing. Turning to face Eldor, Hiss prepared to fight. In his right hand he held a serpentine staff that glowed with supernatural energy; in his left he held a red shield with a snake eye emblem upon it. Crouching behind the shield, he raised the staff and pointed it directly at Eldor. Suddenly the mystic energy in the cave seemed to collapse as Hiss drew all he could into the staff.

Recognising the threat, Eldor focused instantly and unleashed his own magic. The staff suddenly combusted in Hiss's hand, scorching his leathery skin as it burned. Throwing down the unusable weapon, Hiss stared at his attacker as he cowered behind his shield. Hurling orbs of energy at Hiss, Eldor advanced slowly. Using his shield to block the attacks, Hiss retreated further into the passage, and suddenly found himself against a wall of solid rock.

Realising that defeat was imminent, an idea occurred to Hiss. Perhaps he could not destroy this opponent, but he need not lose the battle completely. Drawing upon the last remaining strands of the energy vortex, he hurled himself backwards into the rock face. Protected by the mysterious power of Snake Mountain, Hiss's body vanished and blended with the stone, trapping him within the wall of the cave.

Staring at the black rock, Eldor cursed himself for allowing his opponent to escape with his life. He had sought to slay the tyrannical King Hiss, but he had failed. He could not inflict death upon a being who now existed only as molecules of energy hidden within a rock face. And yet there was something he could do; something that would not destroy Hiss but would prevent his return indefinitely. Reaching down, he grasped the red serpent shield and held it against the passage wall where Hiss had vanished. With a final focusing of his magical skill, he melded the shield with the rock, locking Hiss's presence into the chamber wall. As he stepped back and stared at the ophidian eye, Eldor wondered if by sealing the shield he had truly sealed Hiss's fate.