The first thing Melanth felt when he awoke was agony. The first thing he did was throw up. He had died dozens of times but it had never actually hurt afterwards. He didn’t need to hear the weeping to tell him that something was very, very wrong.
The room was a charred ruin of what it had been. Chess pieces were scattered across the floor, metal clad Clerics ran around like madmen, casting wards and healing the injured. The Dryad was dead, her corpse a charred ruin guarded by a massive Templar with a two handed sword, the Abbot was lying blood soaked and burned in a corner. His vision wavered and he felt terribly weak and he wanted nothing more than to sink back into unconsciousness...

He was aware of pain and more shouting, hovering on the edge of existence somewhere in the fuzzy no man’s land between sleep and waking, wings bound tight to his sides and the faint but very definite sense that someone was moving him. He could not see, he was too weak to open his eyes. Someone tripped and landed heavily on his side, pushing fractured bones deeper into his guts. He hissed weakly, wishing it all to en-

He was still in pain, but this time there was no fuzzy weakness to shield him from it, only raw agony that burned like white hot ice through every nerve in his body. Waking dreams of evil and haunted with the faces of the dead that leered out of the darkness mouthing their names silently to him. Then he had died again, he was sure of it, but it was so hard to tell, so close to the boundary between the worlds of life and death that crossing the thin line between the two meant little. The headache was a giveaway, or was it? Every part of his body both inside and out convulsed with pain like he had been flayed and gutted and rolled in salt. The memory of what had happened returned to him brutally and he risked opening his eyes, only to be greeted with the point of a massive Great Sword pressed between his eyes.
“Where were you born?? He heard. It wasn’t the kind of question that sounded in any way rhetorical, and having six feet of scalpel sharp steel resting on your forehead goes a long way towards encouraging person to be talkative.
“Draak.? He choked out, his throat raw, his chest weak. Even breathing hurt. His eyes refused to focus and he could only make out the figure holding the sword as an indistinct blur of scarlet and silver before weakness overcame him again and he closed his eyes. The sharp pressure was removed from his head, and a grating rasp told him that the sword had been sheathed.
“Katrina was good enough to tell us about that.? The figure said in a gruff, no-nonsense tone. “Your friends are alive, but barely, as are you. Can you tell us what happened??
“No... Idea...? He managed, but it taxed him beyond his limit. He felt his heart stop beating just before he slid back into the Void.

This time he was outside, buoyant and floating in water. His wings were spread out to either side, his head pleasantly light and mercifully free of pain. He realised that someone must have drugged him, but he felt stronger than before. He didn’t bother to do anything but lie in a muzzy stupor, aware that his heart was beating stronger this time and that the headache had gone. Usually after death even drugs couldn’t dislodge the **** hangover and he had to sleep it off, but usually after death he wasn’t so weak that simply speaking two words caused him to die again. He carefully reviewed what had happened in the confines of his mind, but could make no sense of it. Had the Aegis known they were scrying them? And if so how had they attacked them? One thing was for sure; the Dream that had caused them to travel such long roads far from the comforts of home or civilisation was more than just a suspicion. The Aegis was planning something, and those plans had been exposed. Even if he had no idea what exactly the plans were.
“Ah, it’s awake.? Said the strange armoured man from somewhere behind him. He wondered how the man knew he was awake; he hadn’t moved a muscle. He wanted to ask how the others were, if they fared as badly as he did and how the ungifted ones had managed to survive, but even as he arranged the words in his head they slid from his grasp. Clearly whatever drug they had given him had befuddled his mind, but the man seemed to understand.
“Among other Talents we Clerics are unrivalled healers.? He said with more than a hint of vainglory, speaking in a gruff matter-of-fact tone and getting straight to the point. “The pool is to keep your own weight from crushing the breath from your lungs whilst you recover. You owe us a debt; your suffering would have been much prolonged otherwise. You can thank me later, when you can speak again.?
He seemed to pace a short way before stopping again. Clearly he was mulling something troubling over within the confined of his own head. Melanth tried to spit a retort, but only ended up blowing bubbles in the water; speech an impossibility since none of his muscles seemed to want to work. He wondered vaguely why the man was telling him this, and not Ox or the Abbot who would be more privy to the knowledge. Without further words the man strode off, his mail jingling lightly as he retreated. Overhead a bird tittered, and another landed on his back but he was unable to move to dislodge it. He cursed the ill fortune that had ever caused him to take Iridan’s advice. If only they had not headed to that damned tavern he would be safe back in the comfortable confines of his lair in Dralk and never have been involved with this whole be-damnable mess!
Time passed at a crawl; it seemed like an eternity before the lack of warmth on his scales and the stillness of the surroundings told him night had arrived. The peacefulness was a balm to him, healing his hurts better than any drug ever could. As fuzzily aware of his surroundings as he was time passed at a crawl and a hair’s breadth at the same time. On the knife edge of the neither world between sleep and waking he felt dawn trace its first light across the horizon just as the bells of the tower sounded out in a deafening cacophony of noise to rouse the acolytes from their beds. Melanth grumbled at the sudden disturbance, and could feel the curious, penetrating stares of the young ones on his hide even through his sealed eyelids. He hated their pity, their curiosity; but could do nothing but grit his teeth and bear it. The chanting and mantras that accompanied the prayers only served to irritate him further, so that by the time the armoured man returned his temper had had plenty of time to simmer to a boil.
“I’m in no mood to talk.? He hissed quietly, his voice strained. “So just go ahead and gloat and get it over with, or better yet tell me what happened and how my friends are doing.? He said before the man could do more than open his mouth. He wondered that he should have called the Bipeds his friends; it was not something that any self respecting Dragon of Lunus would admit to themselves, but he let the thought pass.
“Your friends are safe, more or less.? He said in a non-committal way, tiling his head. “Concern is not a trait I had previously associated with a dragon, but I guess we live and learn.? He said with a shrug.
“Ha ha fucking ha.? Melanth snarled, wincing as the movement sent a dizzy sensation through his skull.
“You are recovering slower than them.? The man said, choosing to ignore this last, “or at least not as fast as the young ones. We kept the un-Gifted ones from death at great expense of time and resources, although my mentor will take some weeks to heal fully, the sages tell me. He will not be able to join you on your journey to Tazoon I’m afraid.?
The revelation that his friends were still alive hit Melanth like a bolt of lightning. He forced his bleary eyes to open and focus on the man, the glare of light from his shining plate all filling his vision. He turned to his other senses instead, drawing the odour into his nose; armour polish, sweat, a faint hint of mutton that the man had eaten yesterday, and a lingering scent of saffron, identical to that the Abbot’s robes were dyed with. The man unconsciously adjusted a piece of orange cloth wrapped across his midriff, where the chest plate met his skilts.
Ah. Now we’re getting somewhere. It certainly explained the man’s crusty attitude. He probably thought that Melanth had something to do with what went wrong in there, or didn’t try to stop it, and why shouldn’t he- Melanth had made no secret of his disdain for the bipedal races. Once an apprentice always an apprentice, but not happy with the quiet life maybe; or a former student of the Abbot who turned to a different Order, or a different God even? Melanth didn’t really care. At least now he knew what he was dealing with. The man had been sentimental enough about his time under the Abbot to wear a part of his old robe as a sash, and that gave Melanth a crack to lever open, as much as he hated playing mind games with the Naka. Whilst his brain was busy concocting a dozen different ways to use this to his advantage, what he actually said was “Tazoon? Nice place but I’ve already had my holidays this year, even if they weren’t so good. Generally it just rains a lot, but I guess having quasi-demonic things of pure un-death trying to blast you out of the mortal realm is about as bad as it gets. Compared to that I suppose that rain isn’t so bad. Now, tell me, why the hell are we going to Tazoon??
The man actually took a step back. Melanth immediately felt sorry for snapping but he knew a game of silly buggers when he saw one coming and was late enough reporting back into Dralk as it was. What had started out as a sneaky drink during a lull in the battle had become nearly three weeks AWOL and that was trouble he didn’t need. The commander would be asking questions, and no doubt he would be in for a storm of cack when he eventually returned, despite asking Iridan to explain the ridiculous situation. It wasn’t any kind of excuse he would have given credence too if he had heard it from another mouth, but it was a different thing entirely to be stuck here in this damnable pool with the feeling that someone had poured acid into his veins and had spent a few days industriously breaking coconuts on his head.
Rather than shocked, the man bristled instead. Melanth was impressed. Not many people dared back-answer a dragon to their face. He seemed to guess what thoughts were troubling Melanth, or maybe it was an informed guess. He made a mental note not to tell Katrina so much in future.
“Your orders come straight from the top.? He said, speaking through his teeth. “The Council of Tazoon has taken a keen interest in this matter. The news of the Dream had them concerned from the start, but the situation is unprecedented. I don’t mind telling you that the Chief Deacon here had a brown trousers moment when he felt what happened. Yes, he felt it too. There are monks that have been here for two hundred years that have never seen him so distressed. Whatever other orders you might have Dragon, they can wait for now. You and Brother Guan and the girl are to attend in person; Abbot Aralor will arrive as soon as he is able.?
With that he swept around and stormed off, his armour ringing ridiculously like an oversized bell with each heavy footstep. Melanth started to assemble curse words but gave it up as a hopeless effort. He was too tired, and it wouldn’t do any good leastways. No doubt there would be some official docket along or something with the official change in his orders listed in explicit detail; the man seemed the type for that sort of thing. No doubt he would have it drafted in minute detail with an official seal on official fucking paper and without even the slightest room for creative misunderstanding, or even a little incipient deafness that Melanth wasn’t unknown to acquire in the face of instructions from uninformed commanders. Bastard.
There was little left to do except wait and try to ignore the hubbub of daily life around the tower. A passing herd of oxen goaded along the track by nervous handlers were a tempting distraction, but he couldn’t summon the energy to snatch one. At some point a young and extremely nervous neophyte was similarly harassed by his peers into depositing a bowl of broth at the poolside, although by the time he drifted himself over it was the same temperature and consistency as clay. He ate it anyways without tasting; the meat was cold and dead but nourishing, and he wanted to spend as little time in this god forsaken pool as possible. The food must have been laced with more of the drug, because it was roughly the same time of the next day when the expected docket arrived. He didn’t even bother reading it, simply giving permission for one of the smaller scales of his foreleg to be affixed to it with wax in place of a signature. After that there was nothing left to do but eat, sleep and consolidate his strength.
They dragged him out of the pool on the fifth day by dint of much heaving and an ingenious system of ropes and gantries. His weight felt unnaturally heavy upon atrophied limbs when he tried to move and found that he couldn’t. A healer, apparently knowledgeable of draconic anatomy, fussed and poked and scrutinised every inch of his hide until he gave a growl of warning and scared her off. He was left in an indignant heap near the path covered with sack cloth to ward off the chill, although by then he was so angry that it was a mild surprise the grass beneath him wasn’t scorched. He refused more of their drugged, tasteless gruel, applying himself to regaining the use of his limbs throughout the night. It was with great satisfaction the next morning when the armoured man arrived for his ritual morning gloat that the medallion proclaiming his abstinence of Drulkar hurtled through the air and knocked him flat on his arse, leaving a sizable dent in his chestplate as it ricocheted away into the shrubbery with a clang louder than the waking-gong.
“Seven days!? He croaked, heaving himself unsteadily to his feet. “Seven **** days I’ve been eating your doped broth and had birds crapping on my head and suffered your insults! The kid who prunes the runner beans told me how long this morning! You have no idea how good that felt!?
That was a bit of a lie, he admitted to himself. What had actually happened was he had cornered the kid who pruned the trellises and smiled at him until the kid had found himself standing in an expanding yellow puddle and, in a manner of speaking, spilled the beans. A dragon could do amazing things with a smile.
However the man surprised him again, surging to his feet like some angry ocean, shaking with injured indignation and suppressed fury. Melanth allowed himself an internal grin; the man was full of bravado and pig-headed stubbornness that if you looked at it in the right light could just about be called bravery. It was a trait he could appreciate in a man; it made him very predictable. It also, unfortunately for the person in question, made him very easy to annoy.
Welcome to the great old game of Silly Buggers; you started it and now we’re gambling, he thought, and I’ve just thrown a six.
“Now, you are going to take me to my friends right this second, or by whichever god you believe in, take your pick, I’ll give you a dent in your shiny, shiny helmet to match the one in your gut.? He said, overruling whatever stream of venom the man had been about to unleash. The man was younger than he imagined, now that he could see him clearly; he was perhaps mid thirties and had cultivated something on his face that was more a moustache than cave moss, but only just. Melanth looked him over, and allowed himself another mental grin. His sword was notched and his breastplate riddled with dents aside from the somewhat larger one Melanth had just inflicted. He was an old campaigner with a wealth of battle experience, similar to Melanth in many respects, the dragon mused, with the exception that Melanth had become fluid, even eclectic in his thoughts, whereas this man had convictions you could bend steel around. He probably still believed in honour and glory and all those other things that sounded good to new recruits but that inexplicably left out the little details that actually applied to battle situations, like the intestines, and the idea that if your foot got caught in something it was probably a good idea not to look down if you wanted your breakfast to stay in your stomach. That was how veterans dealt with the carnage they had to see and inflict on a battlefield. They accepted it and learnt how to vomit discreetly, or they block it out entirely.
The man gaped like a landed fish for a few seconds whilst his brain figured this one out, mixing the prospects of some dark little revenge it had been planning with the much more immediate prospect of actual bodily harm. Melanth knew his type of mind; not particularly sharp or complicated, but its thoughts had momentum that once they got started they were hard to stop. They were however, easy to direct if you knew which buttons to press, and very fast within a limited array of subjects. Standoffishness would probably get him nowhere.
“Take me to see them.? Melanth implored, much more softly. “If you like you can insult me on the walk there.?
“Come.? The man said simply, rage rising off him like steam. His face beet red but aware that the spectacle had attracted an audience of monks working in the gardens, who had forgotten about their rakes and hoes for a moment to see how the theatre would play out. It wouldn’t do well for a Senior Cleric to turn into Sergeant Incandescent in front of the children, and Melanth could only guess at the swear words his brain was putting together under his helmet for use later. Melanth followed as he stomped off through the winding hallways, doing his best to remain quiet simply because the man was making so much noise. He smiled to himself, guessing how infuriating such calculated and simple actions could be, but after a week of putting up with the various barbs and jibes the man had thrown at him for his sake of being a dragon he felt a little payback was owed.
“In there.? The man grunted, coming to a stop with a final rattling of armour plates. “Much good it might do you.?
“My thanks, Naka.? He replied with a friendly smile. The man had enough self control not to blanch at the sight of the five inch long teeth mere inches from his face, but he went deadly still and suddenly seemed to shrink inside of his armour. A dragon could do wonderful things with a smile.
The room was plain without even plaster upon the walls to hide the bare stone. The floor was warm; a hypocaust he would learn later, to keep the sick from shock of moving from a warm bed to a cold room. There was little else, save a window facing the daylight and a tapestry upon the wall so faded with age that it was quite indistinguishable. The entire place was pathologically clean, he noted, and incense hung in great wispy coils in the air. Of five beds, two were occupied; Brother Guan looked thin and ravished, asleep beneath his thick covering of blankets. Katrina was awake, and she smiled weakly as he entered, sweat beading upon her wan forehead.
“It’s good to see you again.? She said weakly. “We thought you hadn’t made it...?
“I didn’t.? He replied, rather more harshly than he intended, but fortunately she seemed not to notice. “But luckily that doesn’t matter to me, or to you, apparently.?
He settled down next to her bed, feeling that he barely had the energy to keep standing. Katrina seemed barely able to speak, and seeing how much of her strength it cost her he did not barrage her with the numerous questions that had worked their way into his mind like scorching embers of discontent. Something was wrong, very wrong, that much was clear, but what exactly; who could guess? All he knew was that he needed to act quickly, before the committees became involved. The council would talk, and study and all the while nothing would be done. The guard would be stepped up maybe, more patrols sent out, Gifted alerted to be ready, but it would never be enough... had never been enough...
“We have to get out of here.? He said aloud.
“Claustrophobic?? Katrina murmured with a weak grin. Despite the urgency he felt building under his scales he could not suppress a grin- a true grin, not a grimace he put on t scare the two legged ones.
“No,? He replied, “They are sending us to the Council in Tazoon, likely with an escort if I have the measure of that one in the armour. We cannot pass this to the council. Not yet. There are more urgent things to deal with first.?
“But Melanth, what could be more important?? Katrina said, managing to prop herself up on an elbow. “If the Aegis is planning something they must know!?
“And then what?? He said. “Months of debate whilst they argue if there even is a danger and how to best counter it? Followed by further months whilst they mobilise their forces and lay down rations, equipment, tools? This land has grown sleepy, and fat. The last major attack was the battle of Tazoon. Not in two decades have the Aegis have not launched a major offensive move against the Empire. And whilst they talk and argue and bicker the undead will be moving under the cover of night and ignorance, positioning themselves for the killing blow, and delivering it when we are still unprepared. I have seen it before.?
“Then what would you do? Would you take on the Aegis singlehandedly and drive them back to the Bight?? She said sardonically. “Or would you rally an army yourself? I think not. Even if they do take months it is better than nothing. We must warn the Council, they are the only ones who can act.?
“No.? He said, solemnly, shaking his head. “We Dragons made the same mistake once, and it cost us Draak. In our arrogance we thought ourselves safe behind the barriers we had wrought, and those same barriers that were meant to keep the undead out trapped us in a tomb of our own making. Less than fifty live now who had studied on that isle, and only three who were upon it when the Aegis struck. The Dragons will not make the same mistake twice, it is to them we must go. They will listen.?
“And what of the Council? You would leave them unawares to their impending doom??
“Do not think me so callous.? He spat. “Let the Clerics look to their own; we are not their messengers or their servants. The Abbot will be able to explain to the council in our stead. I have no doubt whatsoever that he knows more than he is letting on about this entire debacle.?
She shook her head, as though finding it all hard to take in. He felt a prang of sympathy for her, but hardened his heart to it. He knew that what he was doing would be the better thing in the long run.
“Why do you need me?? she said suddenly. “The Dragons hate humans. I would be more ornament than use.?
“I see I have much to teach you of politics.? He said with another grin. “You have answered your own question. Two races who are abject enemies, uniting for a common goal. It will inspire others, it will cause debate, and rumour. People will ask why and for what reason are we united, and when the truth comes they will put pressure on the Council to take action. The Gifted at least will take note, and if they demand recourse the Empire will have to listen. The Council cannot risk alienating its greatest defenders.?
“I guess so.? She said with an exasperated sigh. “I am in no fit state to travel Melanth. We would not get far, and I expect that they would try to waylay us if we left...?
“Waylay us in the air?? He said. “They would need very long spears to accomplish that, or maybe a miracle.? He chuckled at his pun. “How long until you are well enough to take to the road??
“How long until you are ready, Dragon?? She said with a speculative look. “I am assuming that you will be carrying me, unless you expect that I grow wings. If you were to fall out of the air much good would your plotting do us.?
“I will do what I must do.? He said, tonelessly. “I will see to it.?