Magic's Awakening in the Valley of the Fire Rats
Tales of necromancy, dragons and the mountains
There weren't always dragons in the Valley. But now, there were hundreds. Thousands in fact. Scaly, fire-breathing nuisances if you ask me.
Mother calls them fire rats. She hates them and tells us so, regularly. "If your father were here today, he'd be down there cutting their heads off ten at a time with his broadsword."
"I thought their heads grow back, mum?" I asked.
"No you twit, that's hydras. These are run of the mill vermin, ruining the land, digging their tunnels deep into the valley, wrecking the trees and ruining the soil. How are we meant to eat when they're going to be killing all the crops?"
Teacher said the dragons breathe out toxic air and when they tunnel into the earth they spread their bad breath underground and it infects the soil for miles around. We learned about it when our headmaster was eaten by a dragon and we had an assembly about where he'd gone. The whole school got the rest of the day off too. We were meant to think about Master Kendal but Paul and I went swimming in the river instead. It was fun.
"That headmaster of yours had the right idea. A real man cutting off dragons' heads" Mother said.
"But he was eaten, mum!" protested little brother Paul before Mother threw a fork at his head. It bounced off him and hit the floor and the dogs scrabbled to be the first one to lick the remanence of food off its prongs.
"Don't you disrespect men who fight dragons, my boy! If you and your brother were five years older I'd make you go down there and do the very same thing!"
"But I don't want to get eaten!" Paul whined as he rubbed his temple.
We live in a small town, huddled in a valley surrounded by the Jaddow mountains which have protected us for generations. Or so I'm told. There have been no conflicts since the Great War at least a hundred years ago, until a warlord from the peaks showed up disturbing the peace. I was about five at the time and I remember him. He said he was going to take all the child-bearing women from our town to please his mountain God. He was a tall necromancer, huge in fact, dressed in long robes and his small army wore robes too, and they all practised grey magic.
If there's one thing townsfolk hate more than dragons, it's magic. I was raised on stories of the Great war and how necromancy nearly destroyed our whole world, how magic tore and ripped the ground apart, how it created peaks and lakes, how it swallowed up whole cities and set forth raging volcanos and how it was even the reason why the moon was split in half.
The Jaddow mountains came from the Great War too. Magic pushed them out of the ground during the war and when the Necro-manics lost and were all killed or driven underground, the mountains remained, protecting our town. Mum said this is ironic, but I think it's a lucky but unintended coincidence. We became a fortress town. No one could get in or out of the valley. Until the warlord that is.
"Your father cut that magical scumbag's head clean off. With his broadsword."
"I know mum."
"But his curse remained. You can't chop the head off a curse, only a warlord. He sent the dragons, well, his magic did, so here they are. An infestation. Thousands of fire rats stinking the place up. Slowly killing our food, ruining the land."
Draydo, the town elder, had sent seventy men in all to kill the dragons, but more of the beasts kept turning up, year on year, and all seventy men ended up eaten, not to mention all the people who went down there without asking, including Master Kendal a few months ago. He was meant to be teaching, not fighting.
So now we live with them, the dragons. At least, near them, sharing the valley. It wasn't ideal but if we didn't attack them, they didn't attack us. Besides, the town couldn't afford to lose more men. Mother had been working in the fields the last two seasons because there weren't enough men to complete all the jobs. Paul thinks it's actually because she's built like a mule. Perhaps he's right. Father disappeared sometime between slaying the warlord and the dragons arriving. He ventured over the mountains with a band of brothers to ensure no more magical enemies lay dormant, practising their spells and manipulating earthly rules. He told me before he left it was man's duty to rid the world of magic as it was too risky and chaotic to exist and that it all came from evil.
Word came when we were at school. Another warlord had been spotted on the peaks of the Jaddows. The church bells rang out in long singular chimes. Teacher went pale when she first heard them, she looked terrified before she ran out to find out what was afoot.
It was night. The men of the town were putting on armour, sharpening swords, a chaos of movement buzzed around me, but it was eerily silent as their faces look grim and anxious. I knew that look. It was the look Father had when he had to face up to the warlord, the first one, I mean. I watched him kill that necromancer from the window of the bell tower. Five minutes before, he'd been putting on his own armour, his own face looking like the faces of the men around me.
"You're not watching any fighting tonight!" said Mother. "You're staying here with me and Paul. I don't want you to go above ground until Draydo says it's safe and this new magical scumbag is one head shorter!"
"Yes mum," I said. Paul nodded.
I'd heard men talking earlier, huddled in corners, whispering. I'm 15, but it's still young enough for people to look through you, so I was able to eavesdrop without too much bother.
"There's 50,00 of them, I heard. And the warlord, he's near twice as big as the other one. Twelve foot they say. You can't cut the head off a twelve foot man, necromancer or not!"
"Don't worry! You can't count, neither can I and most of this town. Numbers mean nothing. We'll fight. We have to fight. I'm not having a magic rat take my daughters."
"Maybe this one isn't after our women. Maybe he just wants blood. Or revenge."
I never know how to feel about danger unless the men put it in context. They all seemed worried so I was too.
It has been three days living in the underground hall. Lots of the men who had left to fight hadn't returned. Some were lost and others were confirmed dead. Women wept constantly as news trickled in from the messengers.
"I tink we're losing," said Paul.
"I swear I'm going to bounce this uncooked potato right off your thick head if you say that again, boy," Mother barked back.
But she knew it was true. We were hardly an army. The men of the town weren't familiar with combat, we'd all be cowering in the shadow of the Jaddows hoping never to be found.
Just then, Draydo burst in, his right-hand men surrounding him like drone bees around a queen. Or in this case, king.
"Away, I am fine!" he shouted as they all backed up from his huge frame to give him space.
"My people!" he began. "My people, I bring you pressing news. The warlord's army is advancing. They are nearly at the Clifton Gate and they march towards the town in pairs. It is only the rocky paths that prevent them from engulfing us. But if the gate is breached, the flow of enemies will be relentless and they will consume us all."
Women wailed even more than before and this made their babies cry and their dogs bark. There was a swirl of panicked noise that bounced around the walls and ceiling and rattled my ears.
"I ask you," Draydo shouted, "I ask you this, you must leave now and take your chances in the Jaddow underpasses. Anyone who stays will surely be slaughtered by the necromancer's robed killers."
Then he left and his drones followed. The last one to leave shouted "Begin now! Draydo has spoken" before disappearing up a tunnel to the surface.
It took less than an hour to pack what we needed and snake up and out the tunnels to the mouth of the underpass. There must have been 200 of us and we swarmed in number around the entrance to the eastern mountain paths, fleeing from the warlord and his army as they descended the western side of the Jaddows. I looked back and saw them, they looked like thousands of ants pouring over the horizon, turning the mountainside black, or like red wine being poured down the slopes by an old bearded god as it ran, stained and trickled towards town.
"Dragons!" someone suddenly bellowed and everyone looked up. Two, three, then five, ten, forty, eighty dragons swarmed the sky. As we all stared, the necromancer's troops grew nearer. Moving dots quickly became robed warriors, most of whom glowed purple and green, the corrupt magic emanating from their bodies, the same grey magic used by the dead warlord before this one.
"Look! It's magic! Real magic!" said Paul, with wide-eyed amazement. He'd never seen magic before. He was too young to remember the first time.
"Fire rats!" said Mother spitting on the floor. "Come on boys!" she bellowed, yanking us both back around and towards the mountain paths.
Then something incredible happened. Noise. A huge commotion. Screams. We all turned back and saw the dragons swooping down and picking up purple and green robed figures and flying off with them in the mouths or grasped in their talons, or throwing them into the air and eating them whole. The robed warriors were screaming. You could hear it fill the valley and bounce off the mountainsides. It was them, not us, screaming in terror. It was them, not us, now consumed by terror.
Some fought back. We could see distant coloured streams of magic streak across the sky and hit the airborne beasts, but it had no effect as the dragons kept swooping, kept eating and kept blowing billows of fire into the earth where the robed warriors stood.
Just then, the biggest dragon I'd even seen, a giant red and black creature with an enormous pointy head, swooped down, crowing and growling at a volume that hurt my ears. He nose-dived at speed, corkscrewig down out of site before quickly re-emerging with the warlord in his beak.
Bolts of coloured lightning shot out of the necromancer's freakishly long body as he flapped and flayed in the dragon's beak. The scaly beast then shook his head so violently the necromancer's bones cracked and snapped under the force and the gruesome noise reached my ears from above.
There was cheering, at first from Draydo and his men from across the valley, and then from us as we began to realise we were witnessing our victory. The giant dragon seemed to respond, looping the loop above us all, the limp body of the necromancer still drooping in his mouth, before the beast threw it high into the air, swooped around one more time and ate the necromancer whole in a majestic display of aerial acrobatics.
Mother stirred a pot of potato and leek soup as Paul and I sat at the table.
"Smell that! This food isn't toxic, they told me., they did. The wise men have tested it. It's perfectly safe. Safe enough for Draydo, safe enough for us. Leak and potato coming up my boys."
"So the fire rats were sent to protect us, mum?" Paul asked before a fork bounced off his forehead.
"Don't be calling dragons by them names boy, they saved this town. Show some respect."
"Yes mum," said Paul, holding back his tears. Again.
"Mum, do you think Father sent them? The fire… the dragons, I mean." I asked.
Mother stopped stirring. She went quiet. She looked at me and Paul with an expression I'd never seen on her face before. It was the way Paul looked at our young dogs and the women of the town looked at their babies when we were in the underground hall. It was kind look, soft and full of depth. It felt like a warm hug.
"Of course he did, son. I know he did."
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