The bulbous grey ship winked out of hyperspace and swung into orbit around the blue and green planet. Selecting the largest land mass it decelerated, flamed through the atmosphere, found a secluded location and settled to the ground on antigravity beams, it's landing pads crushing trees like matchsticks. The need for the UR-Metal had become critical and the Hive Mind was becoming desperate. It had been repulsed from this source before, this time it would not fail.
'I have heard it said that rain on a wedding day brings tears to a marriage, but what do the old wives say when it rains fire?' Ancient Vardian Proverb
The kingdoms of Vard and Lancshire were in revelry this spring morning. It was the wedding day of their beloved Prince Karl and Princess Merry; a true uniting of the kingdoms. Such was the magnitude of the eager and curious crowds attending that the ceremony was being held on the jousting grounds of Castle Lancshire rather than in the castle itself. It was to be a jubilant occasion with the venerated Archbishop of Lunz conducting the ceremony, that worthy already standing on a flower-bedecked dais flanked by acolytes in readiness for the couples arrival.
A blare of trumpets and a rattle of drums announced the arrival of carriages bearing the prince, princess and their attendants. Footmen hurried to extend the steps and open the carriage doors as Karl and Merry alighted garbed in their wedding finery. A murmur of approval arose from the assemblage followed by gasps of surprise as bizarre beings emerged from the carriages and stood behind the prince and princess. Were these creatures the royal couple's groomsmen and maidens of honor? It appeared that they were.
Merry walked daintily up the stairs of the dais followed by Linni, Radia, Aqua and Larch; Karl ascended followed by Harabi and Scapulus. The Archbishop looked to the left and right, astounded at the sight of nude men and women colorfully scaled, shining like marble and a vivid blue and green.
Raising his hands to silence the murmuring crowd, he motioned Karl and Merry before him and began reciting the marriage rites in sonorous tones as the couple clasped hands, gazing into each other's eyes. As Karl placed the ring on Merry's finger, shouts and screams from the assemblage caused them to look up.
Swooping from a cloud bank, Thistle and Starflower descended toward the crowd which scattered in panic. A third dragon followed them down, larger than they with two heads on sinuous necks and scales of black and white. The three landed near the dais with a final flapping of immense leathery wings.
"It is the Outsiders," Harabi and Linni said quietly, "They have returned. It is time to do battle once again. Good fortune Karl and Merry."
"Wait," Karl replied, "These are the beings you fought long ago? How the Children of the Dragon came to be?"
"The same," Linni said. "We shall defeat them once again or all is lost. They will destroy everything in their path searching for whatever it is they seek."
"Let us do battle with you against these creatures," Karl roared, looking at Merry who nodded 'yes', eyes shining with excitement.
"We also wish to join the fight," Scapulus said, liking arms with Radia.
"We may be of help," Aqua and Larch chorused.
"Thank you friends," Linni said. "The enemy is full of surprises with deadly warriors aplenty. We do not wish to lose anyone if we can help it."
"Where are these invaders?" Merry asked.
"They landed their ship in Cedar Valley by Mirror Lake," Harabi said. "So far they have not appeared, but we are watching them until all the dragon flights arrive, then we attack."
"We will gather our forces and meet you there," Scapulus shouted. He and Radia whistled for their skeletal mounts which came running.
"May we ride with you?" Larch asked.
"Of course," Radia replied. The four sprang onto the horses and rode away.
Karl turned to the befuddled Archbishop.
"Marry us quickly holy one," he rumbled, "Our friends need our help."
babbled the prelate who mopped his brow, then fainted into the arms of his attendants.
Ever mindful of their princes and princesses needs, the squires had ridden with all haste to the castle and returned with Karl's sword, Merry's dagger and short sword, their leather armor, breeches and boots. Casting off their wedding clothes, they dressed hurriedly, oblivious to the crowd of onlookers who had cautiously returned, curious about the dragons and the goings on.
Tugging 'hello' on Thistle and Starflower's jaw fringes and receiving a slurp from their forked tongues in return, Karl and Merry approached the new dragon who gazed interestedly at them with bright orange eyes.
"Let me introduce you to Nightshade," Harabi said. "He will be joining us in battle. He comes to us from the Iron Mountains Aerie. He has no companions, since he was quiescent and molting at the Time of Choosing."
Karl and Merry exchanged glances.
"We will be his companions in battle," Merry said.
"Excellent," said a deep voice in their minds. "Join with me and together we will destroy these invaders."
The dragon extended his forepaws and lowered his necks. Karl and Merry scrambled up and settled into his control pits. Harabi and Linni had already merged with Thistle and Starflower and with booming flaps of their wings the three dragons took to the air.
The assembled throng watched in awe until the dragons were out of sight, then began talking excitedly among themselves. Tales of this wedding would be told in cottages, alehouses and castles throughout the kingdoms for years to come.
The dragons emerged from a cloud bank and they and their riders saw the alien ship below them.
"Sooth, it is the size of a castle," Merry shouted.
"What are those things circling over it?" Karl bellowed.
"Let us see," Linni said.
They dove and a strange sight greeted their eyes. The creatures appeared to be immense grubs with two sets of broad, translucent wings. They darted about like dragonflies over a pond as if searching for something.
"Let us approach slowly and see how they react," Harabi said. They flew closer and the creatures seemed not to notice.
"I sense a trap," Nightshade said. "Be on your guard."
As if on cue, several of the creatures formed a phalanx and flew towards them. Closing with the dragons they spewed a bilious green cloud in their direction that Nightshade and the others banked sharply to avoid.
Merry screamed in pain as drops of the fluid peppered her arm.
"What is wrong?" Karl shouted.
"Ware the green cloud!" she cried. "It burns as hot coals."
"Amaranth's fist, nothing harms my princess!" Karl swore, "We shall crush these creatures utterly, attack noble dragon."
Nightshade soared upward and then dove on the grub formation, jets of flame streaming from both his mouths. Following his lead, Thistle and Starflower swooped down beside him adding their own gouts of flame. Many of the creatures were incinerated; others fluttered downward wings and bodies scorched. Those remaining reformed and attacked losing more of their number. A gaggle of survivors streaked for the safety of the ship, the hatches snapping shut behind them.
"Let us examine one of these creatures," Linni said, "The better to defeat them."
Nightshade landed beside one of the grubs, writhing in it's death throes. Lifting it in his forepaw, he slashed it open with the primary claw on his hind leg and watched carefully as Karl and Merry dismounted to examine it. Thistle and Starflower alighted next to him and Harabi and Linni joined their friends.
The creatures' insides consisted of several large bladders, nerve ganglia, clusters of wing and body muscles and a rudimentary brain. Karl jabbed a bladder with his sword and it ruptured, enveloping him in a foul stench that sent him staggering back.
"Samarras teats," he swore, "It is a stench from the grave, the smell of death."
Merry carefully slit another bladder and jumped aside as the greenish liquid that had burned her poured out. Puncturing yet another, a yellowish ooze with a sickly sweet odor flowed out.
"It is but a flying bag of poisons," Harabi said. "It's brain is that of a ferret."
"These are but the intruders attack dogs," Linni added. "They are new to us. We must expect even more fearsome creatures to attack."
"Then we shall attack first and vanquish them!" Karl roared, his legendary Vardian battle blood up. "Crush them utterly!"
Merry touched the rising blisters on her arm and grimaced in pain.
"Allow me," Starflower said, her forked tongue coating Merry's arm with saliva. The pain was gone and the blisters shrank.
"Thank you, Starflower. How is it you can heal in such a fashion?"
"It is not fully understood, only that when we joined forces with humans abilities were given to both of us that are of mutual advantage."
"May we heal you as well?"
"I do not know. None of us dragon folk have ever been injured to such an extent as needing to be healed."
"Let us hope that never happens."
"Here are the others," Harabi said.
A flight of dragons appeared, scales shining in the noonday sun.
Reining in atop a ridge line, Scapulus, Radia, Aqua and Larch looked down upon the alien ship squatting like a malignant toad in the valley.
"Look at what it has done to my children," Larch mourned, "Terrible shall be my wrath."
"My beautiful Mirror Lake," Aqua said sadly, "I will have my revenge on this hideous thing."
The nymph and sprite leapt nimbly to the ground.
"Take care, friends," they chorused, "We go to seek our vengeance."
Joining hands they sprang into the air plummeted downward and disappeared into the forest canopy as the skeleton riders watched in amazement.
"Has the battle begun?"
They turned to see a familiar grey figure loping toward them.
"Rath," said Scapulus, "You will fight beside us today?"
"Of course," the wolflike creature replied. "My companions are guarding the city and your warriors are hot on my heels. It was fun outrunning them. Is that our quarry?"
"Yes," Radia replied, "We must formulate a plan of ... Look! What is happening down there?"
The huge ship was wobbling about as if shaken by an unseen hand and a widening pool of water appeared around it. As it attempted to right itself, black tentacles arose from beneath the surface, wrapped around the craft's landing pads and dragged it deeper into the water.
Hatches began flying open and a cloud of poison grubs appeared searching for an enemy and not finding one; at least not one of the sort they could fight.
Thundering hoof beats announced the arrival of the Skeleton Warriors who reined in around Scapulus, Radia and Rath.
"That was quite a display of running," said one to Rath. "I see how difficult it was to fight against you Eaters in the old days."
"It was fortunate for us we had our speed," Rath replied. "You had the weapons. Try to outrun an arrow or a spear one time."
"I've ducked a few..." the warrior began.
"No time for that, Clavi," Radia interrupted. "We have an enemy to deal with."
"Look, there are enemies emerging," someone shouted.
Broad ramps sprouted from openings in the ships sides over the water. Hordes of sticklike creatures poured out clutching what were surely weapons. They formed a cordon around the ship and stood motionless.
"We need to get a closer look at what were fighting," Scapulus said. "Radia, Rath and I will go down there and scout. If we do not return, contact the dragons and launch an attack."
The three moved carefully down the steep slope and into the woods.
Through a break in the clouds, the dragons and their riders could see the grey spaceship below them. The dragon's keen vision could see something was affecting it and said so to their riders. The flight dipped lower and saw the craft half immersed in water; tilted and bent. The poison grubs were thick in the air above it and other things were ringed about on the ground.
They could also see the Skeleton Warriors massed on the ridge in attack formation.
"What has happened to the ship?" Merry said.
"I see Aqua and Larch are exacting their revenge," Karl replied. "It is both vulnerable and unable to escape. Let us destroy it."
"Wait a moment," said a dragon named Trillium, "My rider Celeste is in contact with the Skeleton Warriors. Two of them are approaching the ship to gauge the enemy's strength. They ask us not to attack until their scouts report in."
"Celeste is a seer," Harabi explained, "They speak mind to mind with other beings and the dragons."
Awaiting developments, the dragons and their riders rode the thermals in lazy circles.
Scapulus, Radia and Rath crept silently through the woods until they could see their opponents clearly. They were like nothing they had ever encountered before. Scapulus' hand tightened on his sword hilt, Radia gave a gasp of surprise and Rath growled deep in his chest.
The warriors stood easily seven feet tall on spindly double jointed legs with clawed feet. Their bodies were thin, their long spindly arms also double jointed ending in razor clawed, three fingered hands. Their heads were wedge shaped, with large multi-faceted black eyes, a lipless slash of a mouth flanked by saw-toothed mandibles and whip-like antennae waving above their eyes.
Each carried what appeared to be a weapon; a dull grey tube flared on one end, the other ending in an oddly shaped stock shaped to fit the beings claws. They moved with an abrupt, hopping gait looking warily about as they circled the ship.
"We must examine one of those weapons," Scapulus muttered.
"I'll make some noise," Rath replied. "They'll come to see what's causing it and you two can deal with them." He was gone in the blink of an eye.
Scapulus and Radia became invisible and waited beside a narrow trail through the forest where they determined the creatures would probably approach.
An ululating howl like a damned soul split the forest silence, immediately five of the warriors advanced warily down the path, weapons at the ready. Another howl and they increased their prancing advance seeking the source of the sound.
The last creature in line crumpled as it's head flew from it's body. The others did not seem to notice.
Another head rolled into the bushes, SNICK!
And then another.
The two remaining suddenly realized their companions were gone. With that, a deep growl from ahead of them made them raise their weapons and fire in the direction of the sound. Tree trunks and bushes flew to pieces and then their heads were severed and they fell, spurting blue and green ichors.
"Rath, are you alright?" Radia called out.
"Missed me by a mile," came the reply, "By a few feet anyway. Those are some weapons."
Scapulus picked one up to examine, it was amazingly light and fragile and he bent it in two with ease. The creatures had a fearsome appearance, but evidently were not very strong.
Rath trotted up, fur still ruffled. He sniffed at one of the corpses and sneezed.
"What manner of creatures are these? They have a peculiar scent."
"They seem to be a form of insect," Radia replied. "They have no bones, but their skin is as hard as a beetle."
Scapulus had picked up another weapon, found what seemed to be a firing button and aimed it at a tree stump. There was a whir and the stump disintegrated.
Radia picked up a creatures head by it's antennae, Scapulus and Rath collected the remaining weapons, then they went back to where their horses waited and rode off to show the others, Rath loping along beside them.
After much mind to mind communication, the land and air forces decided the skeleton warriors cloaked in invisibility would initiate the attack on the ship. When the poison grubs were distracted by what was happening below, the dragons would pounce and destroy them. After that, they would all force their way into the ship and deal with whatever was inside.
A thunder of hoof beats caused the insect warriors surrounding the ship to look about, weapons at the ready yet seeing nothing. The sound became louder, then deafening as the first spindly warriors began to fall, struck down by invisible weapons and sharp hooves. Those guarding the ramp into the ship hesitated to fire until they could see a target and died slashed to ribbons.
The skeleton riders split into two groups, one dealing with the remaining guards, the others galloping up the ramp into the ship where they found themselves in a cavernous, dimly lit chamber with featureless walls. Becoming partially visible they stood ready for what they were sure would be an attack from the ships defenders.
The poison grubs swarmed about excitedly at the sight of the battle going on below them yet not seeing anything to attack. The dragons plummeted down upon them, gouts of flame issuing from their mouths incinerating all before them. Using the same tactics as the ground troops, the flight split in two, half entering the ship through an open hatch, the others destroying what grubs still flew.
They also found themselves in an immense, dimly lit chamber with featureless walls. Where was the enemy?
In both cases, the answer was not long in coming. Hidden doors sprang open and hordes of spindly insect warriors carrying a variety of oddly shaped edged weapons charged at the intruders.
Nightshade extended his front paws preventing attacks on them from behind as Karl and Merry clashed with the warriors, cutting, thrusting and sending them reeling back mortally wounded. Since the close quarters made using their flaming breaths dangerous to their riders the dragons contented themselves with snapping the creatures heads off and spitting them into the milling throng.
The dragon riders coiled together in groups of six, the creature's blades glancing harmlessly from their scales. When enough warriors had gathered around slashing futilely, they extended their razor sharp scales and violently uncoiled tearing their attackers to pieces. They repeated this maneuver again and again until the heaps of enemy dead hindered any further attacks.
Karl, Merry and Nightshade had heaps of insect corpses before them and yet more clambered over the fallen to do battle. The dragons began gathering several attackers in their mouths at once, crushing them and flinging the remains into the enemy's ranks. Karl, Merry and the dragon riders began to tire, yet they fought on, besting every opponent.
Abruptly the creatures stopped in their tracks, turned and ran toward the walls, doors opening to receive them then snapping shut. In a matter of moments they were gone. Vaulting over the fallen foe, Karl ran to a door as it closed in his face. His battle blood up, he pounded on it with Thunderbolt's pommel bellowing for the creatures to come back and fight, but they were gone.
Scapulus, Radia and the other skeleton riders dismounted the eerie stillness and thick, humid air causing their horses to snort and paw the floor of the chamber nervously.
"There is danger close at hand..." Scapulus began when doors at the far end of the chamber sprang open and hordes of insect warriors poured forth waving bladed weapons.
"Battle Formation Seventeen," Radia shouted.
Revealing their skeletons, the defenders stood in two serried ranks stretching from one edge of the chamber to the other. Standing well behind them, their horses became invisible, turned their rumps to the enemy and waited.
When the first wave of attackers closed in, the skeleton warriors fought viciously at first then began to fall back splitting their line in half funneling the insects toward the invisible horses. The creatures fought mindlessly, indifferent to the butchery inflicted upon them.
As the milling crowd of warrior insects came close to the horses. The beasts lashed out repeatedly with iron shod hooves, crushing the insects by the hundreds as the skeleton warriors hacked at them from both sides. It was like being fed into a meat grinder with the same results. Waves of the creatures continued to fight and be cut to pieces until, at an unheard command, the survivors ran back through the doors from where they'd emerged which slammed shut after them and the battle was over.
High in a towering sycamore tree, Aqua and Larch had watched the fighting in the air, on the ground and the assault into the ship.
"Do you think our friends need more help, sister," Larch said, winking at Aqua.