Karl departed the Red Gryphon Inn just before sunrise three days after the meeting of the different factions living in the Phantom Realm. He led eight of his own men, from the old mercenary days, each riding their own Trencheron, following them were eighty-five volunteers from those men who currently found themselves homeless because of misfortune or their own carelessness. Unhappily two of those men who had posed the questions about the Dragon Gold rode with the volunteers.
"Peteer, I need you to lead forty of these intrepid dragon slayers around the Nymphs Pool and follow the path to the area above Mordock." Karl smiled reluctantly at his second-in-command as his head silently nodded toward the hero wannabes. The two men silently shared their feelings about using untrained men on a battlefield and set off to complete their mission. Karl turned his attention to those left under his command and saw that one of the gold hunters remained in his group.
"This is not going to be a good day." Karl muttered to himself as he shook his head in disgust. The gentle jingle of the swaying harnesses helped to calm Karl's troubled mind as the troops progressed across the valley floor.
The air across the Talos Valley carried the faint taint of burning flesh to the riders. Their mounts began shifting their feet nervously as the sulfur scent of dragon reached them, but none of the beasts broke ranks to flee across the valley floor. Karl and Peteer looked at each other and sighed in relief. This was one of the things they feared most, untried horses going up against the dragons.
The angry screams and cries of the young dragons echoed across the wide plain and rainbow hued scales flashed as sunlight caught and reflected back from their shiny backs and sides as the dragons performed aerobatics in the cloudless blue-sky overhead.
Karl was surprised when Peteer remarked that he could see real dragons in the sky. Someone had interfered with the mind clouding of the Old Ones. Karl watched the dragons as they flew in tight formation across the plains and over the Fyrestorm Mountains again and again. It was while he was watching the dragons that he began noticing that there was something wrong with many of the beasts, they were not flying right, their wings would catch on their talons and tear as they tried to extricate their feet from the mess. The colors seemed off also, instead of the brilliant reds and greens, Karl noticed the scales were washed out and pale or blotchy imitations of the real and healthy dragons. Karl reached into his duffle bag and removed a pair of far-seers. Putting the glasses to his eyes he focused in on the dragons and gasped when he saw that their eyes were not the brilliant swirling jeweled tones of the dragons he knew, but glassy and flat with no or little color in them; these creatures overhead looked dead.
"Karnak!" Karl hissed as he handed the far-seers to Peteer. While Peteer observed the dragons, Karl searched the horizon for any sign of his old friend.
Karl drew a phial from his coat pocket and poured some of the sparkling contents into his hand; he carefully recapped the phial and returned it to his pocket. Then he held his hand up to his lips and gently blew the dust across his line of vision. The dust was a gift from an ancient friend of his, called Makepiece, the far seer. The glittering powder had the ability of removing any and all spells that caused any kind of blindness that another magician might use.
Unfortunately it could not cure true blindness but only that which another might use to prevent other beings from seeing what he or she was doing.
Karl allowed the powder to filter into his eyes and then he opened them yet again looked across the valley. Karl's heart leaped inside his chest when he saw a familiar shadowed standing of a distant hillside. It was Karnak and he was unaware that Karl could now observe what he was doing.
Karnak pulled yet another nearly rotten body of a mutilated dragon closer to him. Karnak had gotten over being sickened by the foul stench of rotting flesh many eons ago, now he rather enjoyed the pungent scent of the dead.
This was also a good thing since most of Karnak's creations were reanimated dead things. Karl Strange had nearly put an end to his flourishing mutation trade. Now he had to mostly work with thing already dead instead of truly living monsters.
"By the horns of Horus, by the flesh of Baal, come forth old dragon kind and fly once more!" Karnak intoned as he covered the rotting body with a glowing yelloish powder. The flesh began to shiver and twitch as the powder took effect and the once proud dragon breathed again. It was unfortunate that Karnak's magic powder could not restore the beauty of the beasts also, but these creatures would blindly follow his orders. This made Karnak laugh out loud, a sound that was more terrifying than the screams of his monsters. It was a sound that Karnak rarely ever made.
The reanimated beast stumbled to its feet and walked across the ridge on wobbly legs, when it nearly fell Karnak blew another dose of the yellow powder over the beast. This time the beast reared back and opened its mouth and bugled its anger out to the world. Karnak hefted a cloth sack filled with firestones and ordered the dragon to eat. In less than ten minutes passing smoke began seeping out of the dragons maw and when it would sneeze an burst of flames washed across the hilltop.
Karnak then directed the beast down into the valley when the already small village of Mordock lay in flames. The dragon was then told to do whatever it pleased to any living thing that it might find in and around that village.
Suddenly over the heads of Karl and his riders came the angry bugle of dragons. Three great shadows swept across the landscape and just as many horses and riders disappeared into the air. This sent the remaining horses into a full-blown stampede, the panicked beasts tossing their riders onto the hard, sere ground. The scent of fresh blood reached the Trencherons and the war beasts moved into a triangular position. When four triangles had been formed the Trencherons waited, as their riders, Karl and Peteer included, alit upon the ground and vacated the triangular openings. Soon the air over the Trencherons could be seen waiting, patiently for the next dragon onslaught.
The wait was not long for the dragons, filled with the bloodlust of their first attack, flew straight at the Trencheron triangles. The dragons extended their wings backwards and their clawed feet forwards in their swooping attack, but this put them at a disadvantage for an aerial attack, but perfect for lifting victims off the ground. The dragons were shocked when suddenly they found their own flesh being rendered as the Trencherons' teeth crushed their under-bellies as the Trencherons powerful front arms pulled the flying beasts from the sky. The humans watching the scene change from glory of the dragon attack to the rendering of dragon flesh were taken aback by the savageness of the Trencheron attack, all but those used to the animosity between the dragons and the Trencherons. Trencheron offspring were a time-honored favorite meal for wild dragons so the Trencherons gladly dealt the killing blow when given the opportunity to fight dragons.
"These dragons were very young or they would never have openly attacked a Trencheron battle triangle." Peteer remarked to Karl as the two of them watched the three dragons reduced to mere red smears upon the ground.
Karl and his men remembered all too well the battles with the dragon legions when they were in service to the different kings of the Phantom Realm. Those dragons had been hand raised and bonded to their riders, but their killing instinct was just as strong as those of the wild dragons were. In point of fact it was during those battles filled with carnage and loss that Karl Strange and his men met with the old dragon king, Mayhos to end the savage killings before both their races disappeared from the Phantom Realm.
It was decided that a peace treaty exist between the dragon kind and those other beings that shared the Phantom Realm. The Fyrestorm Mountains shall ever and always belong to the fire-eaters, but the minerals that existed below and above belonged to those who had the courage to seek them out. The dragon kings no longer followed the dictates of the Old Ones, there would be no tribute demanded from those who mined the ores. But the dragons still needed places to live and be free from the greed of the human creatures that plagued the land. So it was decided that the mages of the Phantom Realm would cloud men's minds and the golden hoards of the dragon kings would become as fairy tales to be read to the very young. If a real and true dragon would be seen by human eyes, then that human would believe that he or she had seen a Gryphon in search of building stones in the Fyrestorm Mountains.
The treaty had lasted more than two hundred years and had been good for both sides. The dragon population grew in freedom from contamination from the human world and the humans seldom found themselves invited to lunch as the main course. That is until Karnak returned to the land again. He had found wild dragons unhappy with the peaceable world they were forced to live in, those who desired to devour soft, warm bodies again. Karnak set up a rebellion and the younger dragons gladly followed. Karnak arranged for greedy humans to discover hidden dragon hoards and allowed them to steal as much gold as they could carry. That broke the treaty in the minds of the older dragons and such is what brought on the current war.
The sounds of screaming broke through Karl's reverie over past events. A small band of men were leading a group of women and children away from the burning remains of Mordock and the sky overhead was suddenly filled with the screaming and angry calls of dragons. The lead dragons formed a battle "V" with the younger dragons ducking under their outspread wings and dive-bombing the humans running on the ground below.
A dark blue dragon scraped its legs across the ground just before clutching a terrified woman holding on tightly to a struggling child. Karl felt his heart break as he witnessed the angry crushing of the talons and the air fill with the victims' blood. Karl raised his hand and threw a small silver object he had hidden there. The object flew straight and true and hit the blue dragon along its side, the dragon shuddered as a gash opened up where solid scales had been but seconds before and the dragon screamed out its pain and fear as it fell down upon the ground with an earth shaking thud, it was dead; as dead as its victims.
"A Silver Star, Karl?" Peteer remarked as he approached his friend. "I thought you had given all those things back to the Mage Ruler when we defeated Karnak."
"I thought so also, Peteer. That is until I began searching through my belongings and battle gear. I found a small leather pouch of twenty of them. I just regret I didn't get it out sooner, that woman and her child would still be alive if I had." Karl stared at the remains of the two human victims, unshed tears washing across his eyes.
Karl motioned for twenty more troupes to use the trees to hide their approach to the remains of Mordock and rescue any and all the beings they might find there yet alive. Karl had just turned toward Peteer to give him some advice when he suddenly felt the pure power of evil wash across his flesh. Karl turned suddenly in that direction just as three oversized beasts rushed through his defenses and attacked him and Peteer. Peteer went down first, two of the beasts attached to his throat and then just as he threw one of them from him, he collapsed in a sea of blood as the last beast severed his throat. Karl was still fighting with the third beast when the one that had killed Peteer turned and attacked him also. Karl could not get his hands through the thick ruff encircling the Nightstalker's throat, so he tried to get hold of his wrist knife to slash away at the beast. The first beast seeing that Karl was reaching for something in his coat grabbed the searching wrist and hand in his mouth and began crushing the bones and muscles he found there. Karl was close to being spent, he was losing blood quickly from his mangled hand, he was beginning to see stars and black spots before his eyes and conscious thought was leaving him. His last thought was of a tall, fox-haired lady with yellow-green eyes bending over him to kiss him.
The sky above Mordock was suddenly filled with the screams of new dragons. These creatures had not been seen in the Phantom Realm for more years than the dragon lords had ruled. Red scales edged in gold, green scales edged in silver, black edged in gold; these dragons blew flames also but their flames formed cones of safety for the people of Mordock that had been steadily driven by their attackers out into open fields where they could be easily eaten. No dragon could now come near the intended victims as the cones shimmered over them, when any of the attackers tried to close in on them a flash of brilliant light would occur and the dragon would vanish from sight leaving only a puff of black smoke to mark its passage.
The fighting dragons attempted a charge on thenew comers but were rebuffed as if they were but candy floss on the wind, then the sky overhead changed yet again and a darkness covered the land.
"SO OUR CHILDREN WOULD FOLLOW THE PATH OF THE DARK GODS, WOULD THEY?" A steady voice boomed across that now silent field. "WE CANNOT RETURN THIS LAND TO NORMAL FRO WE CANNOT RETURN FLESH TO LIFE, THAT IS ONLY FOR THE CREATOR OF ALL LIFE. BUT WE CAN STOP THIS BATTLE FOR THIS DAY."
The dark shadow retreated leaving behind the oddly marked and glittering dragons standing guard over the rebel dragons. These dragons were healed of their wounds and taken from the land to places known only to the dragons.
For the humans and other beings that had survived the attack that day, pots of glittering salves and ewers of fresh water appeared across the battlefield. Those trained in herbal medicines received mental messages on the use of the salves and water, they immediately put the new knowledge to use as they tended the burns and bloody slashes of the survivors of Mordock.
No one seemed to notice the odd red dragon that picked Karl Strange and Peteer form the bloody fields of carnage that day, nor was it seen flying away toward the center of the Talos Valley and the Red Gryphon Inn. The dragon left her passengers lying on the ground by the back doors of the Inn's kitchens. It bellowed once and rose in a soft and careful movement that disturbed not the ground any more than a gentle breeze.