Richard Lee Byers

Queen of the Depths


Hetham studied the murky gap between the dark mounds that were the hills. Nothing there yet, or at least, nothing he could see.

The problem was that despite the enchantment a sea-elf Dukar had cast on him to augment his vision, he couldn’t see much. Like all mermen, he was a creature of the upper waters. He wasn’t used to these cold, desolate depths. Light as he knew it scarcely existed here, and clouds of particulate matter, a byproduct of the teeming life hundreds of feet higher up, drifted down to obscure any feeble gleam that did arise.

With a flick of his piscine tail, he swam a little closer, squinted, and still saw nothing. He cursed.

Ingvatorc chuckled. “Relax, my friend. They’ll be here soon enough.”

Hetham’s mouth tightened in irritation.

Thus far, the mad dragons had mainly attacked As’arem, the confederated shalarin kingdoms. But the spindly, crested shalarins were part of the Nantarn Alliance, and so troops from all six allied races, and others that merely maintained friendly relations with them, had united to battle the wyrms. Companies of mermen stood with slender sea-elf crossbowmen and goggle-eyed locathah spearmen with jutting fins ringing their faces and lining their limbs. Tritons, beings somewhat resembling mermen, but with scaly legs ending in flippers in place of tails, tended gigantic crabs that served as both mounts and weapons. Morkoths, their forms an ugly blend of fishy heads and octopod bodies, inspected the ranks of their sahuagin and scrag slave soldiers. Dolphins and whales swam about the periphery of the formation.

The battle order put Hetham and his company next to a band of storm giants, towering manlike beings possessed of prodigious strength and potent magic. The merman knew he was lucky to fight in proximity to such formidable comrades. Still, no doubt because he was nervous, he found Ingvatorc’s calm and cheerful manner grating.

“What if the wyrms don’t come through the gap?” the merman asked. “What if they circle to take us from behind, or from above?”

“They won’t,” said Ingvatorc, strands of his long, dark hair and beard shifting in the current. “The scouts and diviners agree. You have to remember, the wyrms have gone crazy. They no longer have sense enough to keep an eye out for trouble or use clever tactics. They just swim until they find something to kill, tear into it, then rush onward” The giant stopped and stared. “They’re here. Get ready.” He waved his hand, signaling to others that the time for battle was at hand.

Across the formation, other officers did the same, and everyone made his final preparations as silently as possible. The wyrms surely sensed that someone awaited them beyond the gap, but if the warriors of the alliance were quietand luckythe cover afforded by the twin hills might keep the drakes from realizing just how strong a force had ventured forth to engage them.

Hetham heard a rasping screech, a snarl, but still couldn’t see anything. Then, at last, the notch between the slopes seemed to churn. Vague, serpentine shapes erupted from the gloom.

For a final moment that seemed to stretch on and on until Hetham wanted to scream, nobody attacked. Then captains and sergeants bellowed their orders. Volleys of crossbow bolts streaked through the water, though Hetham and his company didn’t shoot. As yet, they were too far away. Spellcasters pointed wands and staves, or chanted incantations and lashed their hands through mystic passes. Darts of crimson light; glowing, slashing, disembodied blades; and pouncing, seething masses of shadow assailed the wyrms. Glaring at a huge black drake with a withered, leprous mask, Ingvatorc sang more than declaimed his words of power. He ended on a deep, sustained note, and rounds of milky phosphorescence materialized above and below the reptile. They snapped shut on it and engulfed it completely, like an oyster clasping a pearl.

For an instant, it almost seemed as if the allies could batter and harass the wyrms with impunity. One of the mermen cheered. Then, in a surging blur of motion, the reptiles struck back.

A dragon eel, as long as Ingvatorc was tall, with a few crossbow quarrels sticking in its dull scales, lashed its tail and hurtled into the midst of a band of elves. Each snap of its beak obliterated a warrior, nipping him to fragments, or snatching every trace of him from view as the creature swallowed him whole. A haze of blood suffused the space around it.

Wings beating, shimmering water drakes shot through a band of shalarins, wheeled, and streaked at them again. On each pass, they ripped at their prey with fang and claw.

A colossal sea drake, a wyrm somewhat like the dragon eels but even bigger, whipped around a whale, confining and crushing the cetacean in its coils, tearing great chunks of flesh away with its jaws. Dolphins swirled about the duel, hammering the drake with their snouts, but to little effect.

A long-necked dragon turtle, like a living fortress in its massive, bladed shell, opened its beak and spewed its breath weapon. The water in front it bubbled furiously, suddenly boiling hot. The locathahs caught in the effect floundered in agony.

Meanwhile, the dragons capable of casting spells, or possessed of innate magical powers, blasted arcane attacks at the wizards and priests among their foes. The reptiles might be insane, but they still had sufficient wit to use the full range of their abilities and to strive to eliminate their most dangerous adversaries first.

A topaz dragon, eyes glowing like yellow flame, hide reflecting light as if it were a living jewel in truth, stared at a half dozen morkoths. Unlike many of the supernatural effects being conjured on every side, the wyrm’s power didn’t manifest with a flash, a whine of sound, or anything else perceptible to Hetham’s senses. But the morkoth wizards convulsed, their tentacles whipping about. Instantly, the topaz beat its wings and plunged forward to finish them off while they were helpless. The morkoths’ bodyguards, sahuagin with round, black eyes; webbed, clawed hands; and maws full of needle fangs, leaped to interpose themselves between their masters and the threat, but the topaz smashed through them in an instant.

A black dragon snarled at a trio of sea-elf Dukars, the enchanted coral bonded to their skeletons now visible to all, jutting from their hands and twining about their limbs to serve as weapons and armor. The water around the mages darkened, curdled. They flailed, evidently unable to breathe, and struggled to flounder clear of the cloud. One of them succeeded, but only to blunder into the dragon’s jaws.

The glowing, clamlike prison Ingvatorc had conjured winked out of existence, liberating the black inside. The dragon snarled words of power. To Hetham’s horror, Ingvatorc changed, shrinking, his limbs becoming soft, clear, and shapeless as the substance of a jellyfish. Until something, his own magical abilities or sheer strength of spirit perhaps, reversed the transformation. He swelled and solidified back into his true form, then slumped wide-eyed and quaking, striving to collect himself sufficiently to resume the struggle.

Hetham was glad to see his huge companion withstand the curse, but he wondered if it was really going to matter. Nothing else had. The army of the alliance had claimed the ground its commanders had wanted and executed the strategy they’d devised. They’d struck the first blow and struck it hard. Yet as best Hetham could judge, they’d scarcely hurt the wyrms at all. They certainly hadn’t slowed them down or dampened their appetite for slaughter. The reptiles were knifing through their ranks as easily as a whale sucked in mouthfuls of plankton.

Heart pounding, Hetham looked over to see if his captain was about to order the company forward into the mayhem. It didn’t look like it. Perhaps the officer was afraid, or maybe he simply saw no point in moving. For after all, the dragons were coming to them.

The dragon turtle boiled a squad of tritons with another puff of its superheated breath. Water drakes and dolphins spun around one another in a combat like intricate dance. The cetaceans fought fearlessly, and their bards sang songs laced with magic, but the reptiles had them overmatched and ripped them to bloody shreds of fin and viscera. A dragon eel caught a giant crab in its beak, bit down, and cracked its adversary’s shell. Still alive for the moment, the arthropod groped with its pincers, but the drake kept is scaly coils out of reach.

Two dragons, the colossal black Ingvatorc had tried and failed to imprison and the equally enormous topaz,

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