“You’re really staying in Skymoore, Malleus?” asked Deyna dil Stillbreeze, a mountain elf whose dark skin looked purple beneath the night sky. “Couldn’t pay me to stick around there.”
“People were right,” agreed her twin brother Majorge, “that place isn’t of this world. Have you ever seen such catastrophe at a market in your life, sir?”
“That isn’t even to mention what happened at the bank! And the holes that open out of nowhere, and the complete lack of inns. Where will you even stay?”
Malleus Silverscale did not look concerned. His draconic eyes were fixed upon their campfire thoughtfully. He and his companions were hidden among a dip in the hills, but all around them, columns of smoke rose in the air as over a dozen separate camps settled in for the night, either planning to return to Skymoore the following day, or readying for the trek home. “There are always hospitable people, I’ve found. The peculiarities and dangers of which you speak are exactly why I’m staying; it’s true what you say, there’s something not right with Skymoore. I’ve grown fond of you over the course of journey, but I understand if you must go.”
The twins exchanged a look, scrunched their noses, and returned to Malleus. “We mean no offense, Mr. Silverscale, sir,” began Deyna, but Malleus put up a hand. “You’ll have to try much harder to offend me, Deyna,” he assured.
It was cold outside. A southern wind blew the frigid airs of the Frostlands their way. Fortunately, they had Burak, the enormous burrowing worm in which they traveled, wrapped around their camp to keep them warm. As snow began to fall, the minotaur druid G’rankil’riskiten Wyrmtamer placed a spell of protection around their campfire using a clump of dirt and a bit of Burak’s saliva. As the snowfall grew surprisingly fierce, Wyrmtamer increased the potency of the spell, quieting the sounds of the outside world. In the relative silence Batheron Wormtamer scrubbed at his massive companion, Deyna sharpened her hunting knife, Wyrmtamer muttered a lengthy prayer to the storm god Karlosk, and Majorge whistled a tune. Malleus was moved by the music of the weather and the camp, and he began to drum out a popular folk song from his home against his kite shield.
To his surprise and delight, Deyna began to sing along:
“Livin’ my way ‘til my dying day,
I swing my hammer no matter what they say.
My soul’s in these mountains,
My heart’s made of clay,
If we don’t stop workin’ it’ll be okay.
Clouds in the sky but my body’s warm,
You and me darlin, we will weather the storm.”
Malleus and Batheron repeated the chorus along with her, and Malleus could feel everybody’s spirits lifting as they forgot the cold and uncomfortable day. But as they launched into the second verse, Malleus put up a hand.
“See that?” he asked, looking up at the sky.
“See what?” the twins asked in unison.
“Exactly,” murmured Wyrmtamer. “No smoke.”
“So?” said Batheron. “Storm blew ‘em out.”
“Perhaps,” said Malleus, “but I’m going to take a look anyway.” He strapped his shield to his arm and punched his gauntlets together. For a moment, they were enveloped in a warm light as the knuckles suddenly locked into place like clockwork and began to reshape themselves into a brass war hammer.
At the top of the hill, Malleus produced a copper spyglass with little yellow suns painted on. It always showed the world as it would be in ideal weather conditions, cutting out the snow and clouds. He took a look at one of the nearest camps, where a traveling band of kamenkin had been resting. It was empty now. Tent flaps open, fire doused, packs strewn about. But not a soul in sight.
The next camp he checked was much the same. As was the next. At the sixth one, a group of elves and dwarves were hurriedly packing up their supplies into a cart as one of their members chased after a spooked zebra. From their panicked movements, it was as though they’d seen some kind of monster. But what?
A sudden shape passed through the lens of his spyglass. Malleus lowered it just in time to divert his attacker’s shortsword with his shield. His foe was his size, but their features were obscured by shiny black armor with illuminated red ridges; a soldier of Below. They quickly threw themselves against him with considerable weight, but Malleus Silverscale budged for no one. He knocked his foe aside when he heard a cry from down the hill, where he saw his camp flooding with more soldiers running down the opposite slope.
All of his campmates were either apprehended, or in the process of being apprehended, as figures in tight red clothes drew arcane runes at their feet. Malleus threw his hammer downhill with speed and precision, knocking cold the soldier it struck. His attacker came at him once more, but Malleus used their momentum to toss them down the hill, bowling them into the two soldiers restraining Batheron.
The Wormtamer spoke in a bestial tongue, stirring his massive companion into battle. If it attacked with its body, it would certainly crush its companions, but as the worm thrashed about the camp like an untamed hose, it inspired enough uncertainty in the soldiers for Malleus to dispatch them with ease.
Already, more soldiers stood at the top of the hill, many of them waiting with crossbows ready.
“We’re indefensible here, my friends,” Malleus lamented. “Take Burak and leave here at once. I will defend them.”
“That will be your death, Malleus,” said Majorge.
“That will be my duty,” Malleus corrected. “Now go, before it’s too late.”
His campmates expressed their gratitude nonverbally as they entered the mouth of the enormous worm. Malleus charged up the hill as they boarded, catching arrows and bolts on his plate, shield, and scales. The soldiers could plainly see who the real threat was, and focused on Malleus long enough for Burak to burrow beneath the ground. Orders were barked to the effect of “stop them from getting away!” but anyone who tried quickly earned the dragonkin’s attention. He fell upon his foes like a force of nature.
But the armored men kept coming. As other camps were cleared, Malleus became the target of horde after horde of soldiers. He could only stay unharmed for so long, quickly accumulating dents, cracks, and scratches on his shield, plate, and scales. But that was okay. Taking punishment and dealing it back was the Silverscale way. As he retreated back into the nadir, a sea of black and red flooded him like rainwater. They held him down with sheer numbers, pinning his limbs and drawing their runes around him in an attempt to take him elsewhere. But they forgot to shut his mouth.
With a roar Malleus expelled a thick cloud of glittering mist; a sudden burst of fog to accompany the falling snow. As the unsuspecting soldiers breathed it in, they quickly fell asleep, and those who held their breath quickly fell to Malleus’s hammer.
Battered and bloodied, Malleus hobbled up the hill, and made his way back toward Skymoore. Off in the distance he could see a few of his fellow campers escaping in the opposite direction, but the vast majority of people he’d entered the city with were nowhere to be seen.
He and his companions may have survived the day, but the Army of Below won the battle.