The Necromancer Queen was seated demurely atop the giant skeletal remains of some long-dead cat. The branch of her silver horns shimmered under the plump summer moon, and tied to each spike and knob were bones. They clattered with her slightest movement, curling in the breeze, the silver runes gleaming against the dull ivory. She smiled up at Candle as if she knew exactly where to find her, amongst the carnage in the air.
"So this is the Day Nation," Borlowen said, stretching. She yawned, then held up a hand to shade her eyes from the pale moonlight, glancing down at the Lochlanach settlement in the hollow of the valley before her. "How quaint."
Her voice, augmented by magical means, was carried into the sky to whisper in Candle's ears as if the Queen's lips were a mere finger's breadth away from her skin. Candle shook her head, trying to dislodge the silky grease of that whisper, feeling violated.
"What in the Night–" said Locryn, and Candle knew they had heard it too.
"This is your Necromancer then," said Delen, and Candle nodded, her eyes fixed on the slight figure below. Borlowen’s gown was softly luminous against the coarse dark of the mountain rocks. She was easily visible.
"Get ready," said Jotham, and Candle could see him pulling threads of magic towards him. She did likewise, gathering in all the magic she could find, storing it in her body till her blood hummed.
"Get ready, how," said Carantok, a note of panic rising through the timbre of his mind's speech.
"The dead will fight for her," said Jotham.
"Well yes, but– "
"Burn them. Your flame is your greatest chance of survival."
"Our flame? How– "
"Tap into your rage," said Candle, blowing a tendril of blue fire through her nostrils. "And it will come. Your bodies know what to do."
"I have plenty of rage," said Locryn, and he blew out, his breath sparking and hissing through the air before him.
Below them Borlowen spread her hands wide, the chiffon and silk of her dress streaming in the wind, and the bones in her hair jangling in discordant agitation. This time when she spoke, it was not an insidious whisper but a booming declaration that carried the length and breadth of the valley. The Night Nation dragons turned, noticing her for the first time. The barbarian airships shuddered to a halt, every face turned towards her.
"I am Borlowen, Queen of the Wælmist and the Night Court, and I claim this land for my own." She smiled, the colour of her lips leeched black in the grey of the night. "Submit or die. I will have your souls one way or another. Although admittedly the latter is more fun." Turning her head she regarded the small army of imps, stone men and lightning birds that waited patiently at her side and cocked a brow. "Go on then," she encouraged them. "Have fun."
Borlowen sat, still and cold as a statue carved from polished marble as the wave of her army broke around her. The lightning birds took to the sky in a noisy flock, cawing and screaming, the imps swarming down into the valley below. The Lochlanach fled before them, men, women and children who had been hiding from the aerial battle ran tripping through the streets of their town, desperate to escape. A handful of stone men moved with stiff, booming gaits, each footstep deliberate as they ranged themselves around their Queen. Borlowen, herself leaned back and crossed one dainty ankle over the other, a smirk hovering on the corners of her lips.
Candle wanted to keep her eye on the Necromancer Queen but her attention was soon called away as the host of lightning birds attacked, rising straight up through the air to target the Havian dragons, lightning crackling between their outstretched talons. Clouds gathered overhead as the impundelas called the storms to them. Unlike the Lochlanach, they were quite sure who was who. They flew straight past the Night Nation dragons to descend on Candle and her friends. Within moments the air was thick with smoke, debris and screams as the battle was joined on all sides. Lightning crashed and boomed, momentarily turning Candle's vision to dancing spots.
"What do we do," screamed Delen, clawing at the air in her panic.
"Fire!" shouted Candle and Jotham at the same time. They led by example, and the lightning birds scrambled out of the way of their burning breath. Several of them dropping out of the sky their feathers smouldering and curling. Locryn found his flame moments later, so hot it streamed blue, melting the flesh off the bird closest to him. Candle snapped at a lightning bird that was clawing at Steren, slapping it away with the end of her tail and then realised with a shock that it was Ronove. He turned on her, his beak stained red with the blood of her friend and darted away from the plume of her fire. She gave chase, twisting and ducking through battle, darting under and around a small barbarian ship before losing him as she crashed into the hull of another that appeared unexpectedly in her flight path. Flapping wildly she backpedalled through the air, scrabbling out of the way before the barbarians could train their sights on her.
Down below she spotted a group of Ancestors Own, camped on a rocky outcrop surrounded by enchantments. They were picking off straggling lighting birds with their iron arrows, and one of them had a barbarian gun. Pasco had brought help then, she thought, but the humans were vulnerable on the rock, and she turned towards them, thinking she could protect them.
A cloud passed in front of the moon, momentarily plunging the battlefield into soupy darkness. Streams of fire and the burning wreckage of the barbarian ships that lay smouldering on the rocky bed of the valley floor punctuated the darkness that seemed suddenly very loud. Candle crashed into someone in the black, and not knowing whether it was friend or foe pulled away in the opposite direction. Sheet lightning coursed across the sky and she shied away, again changing direction, not knowing in which direction she flew.
When the clouds had drifted away Candle found herself staring down at the valley below. Shadows pooled in pockets, the moonlight casting the surrounding mountains into sharp relief and she noticed that around the white-clad figure of the Necromancer, the shadows were somehow darker and deeper. As she watched they coalesced into a thickening ink-black gloom. The rocks around the Queen were littered with bone fragments and her arms were spread wide. The Queen's lips were moving, although Candle could not make out the words. The air around her pulsed and throbbed, and the deep dark of that shadow bulged out like a living thing. Smoke stains rose from the ground and spirits rose, twisting in violent agitation around Borlowen's head. She crooned to them, and they twined around her arms in an oily caress, their eyes glittering with malevolence.
"Off you go, my lovelies," she said, and flicked her wrist. Candle gasped. The spirits went speeding across the fell towards the crushed and broken bodies of the fallen Lochlanach airmen. The shades disappeared into their cooling flesh, each body lurching upwards on the impact. Dark smoke sank into their skin and they rose, stiff and awkward. Twisted limbs hung at unnatural angles, heads wrenched sideways, wounds gaped as they staggered forwards. Their eyes snapped open – vivid blue and shining with wicked intelligence. As one they lifted their heads to look up at Candle, circling above and then they were moving. She gathered in as much magic as she could. Inferno, she could destroy them with inferno, and she needed to do it quickly. But the skinwalkers were fast, faster than humanly possible. Within moments they were crawling over the deck of the crashed airship, covering the hull and the rigging like a swarm of foul termites. The dead men hoisted ropes and set sails, some of them dipping their fingers in jars of moonsilver to repaint the runes, leaving behind streaks of blood and lumps of their flesh. They worked without regard to their welfare or thought for their disintegrating bodies and within moments the wreckage of the airship limped into the sky.
"Quickly!" Candle's Ancestors roared in her ears, spurring her into motion and she cast the rune. But she cast wild. She was too late, the ship was airborne, its undead crew prepping canons with inhuman precision and speed. The blast of her magic went wide, searing a hole in the mountain opposite, and she banked, bile rising in her chest. Before she could gather more energy the airship had turned broadside and she had to dive to avoid the hail of bullets. The undead airmen were good shots. One bullet grazed her tail and she yelped at the pain.
Candle flapped desperately to gain height, with the nightmare airship right behind her. Delen and Locryn came to her aid, turning in concert to rake the decks with their flame. Candle risked a glance and saw the ship was properly alight. She breathed a sigh of relief but it was misplaced. The fire did nothing to stop the skinwalkers. With the ship burning around them and the undead airmen themselves alight, their hair and clothing smouldering around them they carried on working as if nothing was amiss. The scent of scorched flesh filled the air and Candle gagged. Down on the ground, the second dead ship was rising.
"How can we kill them?" said Locryn. "We can't get down there and fill their mouths with salt, not to mention there are too many of them. How in the Ancestors name can we kill them? It would take too long and be too dangerous."
"The fire will destroy them," said Candle. "Eventually." They all ducked as the cannons roared, and the projectiles hurled through the air over their heads.
"There are so many of them," said Delen, spreading her wings wide and raking a passing lightning bird with her flame. It squawked at her, frantically snapping and flapping, before crashing into the rocks below. A cannonball flew past Candle's shoulder as she banked. Lightning crackled through the air behind her. She blinked, not knowing which way to turn.
"Inferno," said Jotham, "deep breaths. You take that ship and I'll take the other."
Jotham's presence calmed her and Candle nodded. Gathering in a deep breath she called magic to her, storing the energy in her veins until she felt like she might explode. She and Jotham released the fire rune for inferno, each of them targeting a ship. This time her aim was true and the airships erupted into intense flames. The intensity of the plumes was such that the ground beneath was scorched into a circle of blackness, while the towering inferno reached the clouds. The skinwalker crew and their ship disintegrated into ashes.
"Is this what you want?" screamed Candle, as she soared past Asher. "Do these look like slaves? Do I act like a slave? Do you think yourself so much better? Do you want so much death and destruction?"
"This place is ours by right of conquest," said Asher, but he looked troubled. "No one asked you to stand against us. You could have – "
"I could have what? Joined you? I am the same as them."
"Kill her," said Orin. "I'm sick of listening to her yap."
"Asher – " said Zeb, confusion clearly writ across the younger dragon's face. He swerved wildly to avoid Jotham who was once more bearing down on him with fire in his eyes and outstretched claws. They tumbled through the air in a mass of tooth and scale, before Zeb managed to break away, scrambling away from his vindictive uncle, who grinned and spat a chunk of Zeb's shoulder out of his maw.
"Listen to your cousin, young ones," he said. "Before this goes past the point of no return. I have been lenient with you so far."
"We can't stop," said Asher, his eyes worried. "That would mean breaking the alliance with– " He glanced down to the rocky knoll where the Necromancer Queen was standing with her lackeys. Candle wondered if she was listening. "No," he said, shaking his head.
Candle swerved wildly, rolling in the air as a barbarous iron javelin flew past her, narrowly missing piercing her wing. It had been hurled by a stone man far below. The point gleamed wickedly and she shuddered. She could only imagine how much harm that would do to the delicate membrane of her wings. Her eyes snapped back to Asher, although she made sure to keep aware of Borlowen, far below.
"I will fight to the death to defend my land," said Candle. She flapped her wings, trying to steady herself and looked into Asher's golden eyes. "Will you kill me to get what you want? Will you walk over my corpse and feel good about it when the sun rises?" They hung there together, suspended in a moment of time, as the battle raged. The smoke rose, coiling around them, and Asher looked out across the flaming battlefield, at the chaos and the three-way battle raging between the dragons of the Ancestors Own, the barbarians and his brothers. He looked back at her, golden eyes meeting blue.
"I- I don't want to kill you."
Relief coursed through Candle's veins.
But before she could open her mouth to speak a puff of air moved. She shied back instinctively, almost colliding with Ronove. He grinned at her as the air between them thickened and crackled. Before either dragon could move, a bolt of lightning struck Asher dead on the forehead. He was stunned instantly, his face paralyzed into an expression of shock. An iron stake flew through the air, piercing Asher's chest, slicing through scale and muscle to embed itself deep in his heart. Other javelins followed, burying themselves in his body with sickening thuds as Candle screamed.
Asher dropped like a stone.
Candle dove, dodging through smoke and around friend and foe alike but it was too late. Asher hit the ground with a resounding crash that shook the surrounding earth, sending a ripple of dust and debris in every direction. He lay unmoving, staring up at the sky, his golden eyes dull and unseeing. Somewhere high above Candle could hear Zeb and Orin roaring, their horror mingling with her own.
The Necromancer Queen tilted her cold, pale face them and gave a nonchalant shrug.
"He is more good to me dead," she said. Borlowen flicked one slender wrist as if she was conducting a symphony. Stone men trudged down the mountainside and surrounded Asher's still form, momentarily obscuring him from view. When they pulled back, the iron stakes had been removed leaving behind only the torn and raged flesh, and ghastly holes where they had made their entry. Borlowen smirked up at the circling dragons as spirits swarmed over Asher's cooling corpse, wriggling along his scales and disappearing into his gaping mouth.
"Much better," she said. She tapped one finger on her smooth, cold cheek and this time her gesture was one of invitation. "Up you get."
Asher's body rose into the air as if pulled by unseen strings. His wings drooped, his forearms hung limp and heavy from the dead weight of his frame. His head lolled forward, his tongue protruding. The still bleeding edges of his many wounds flapped in the breeze, organs and innards clearly visible beneath the bright moonlight. The dull eyes dilated, winking shut in a mockery of life, then opened, flashing a vivid, unnatural blue. His head rose and he turned towards Borlowen.
"Perhaps now you will be obedient," she murmured. And Asher, or the corpse that had once been Asher, took to the sky, throwing back its ruined face with a roar that reverberated off the hills.