Dragon Hunt - Part Seven
Finally a lair had been found.
The approach to the cave in the high mountains showed signs of unmistakeable desolation, which had been unmissable from the carpet - trees and boulders were blackened and cracked, other vegetation had been reduced to ash and there were signs of animals having been dragged into the enormous cave opening - probably pegasi or even hippogriffs from the surrounding area, Lana surmised, by the quantities of feathers present. The entrance to the lair - for it seemed more than likely that was what it was - was surrounded by broken debris. Among the remains, black and still smoking, were what looked like the large wheels of a wagon or perhaps several wagons. Lana thought it boded well for the contents of those wagons, along with other wealth, to be awaiting them inside the caves.
"How will we go about this?" Lana asked of her companions. "We need to prepare - learn what we can about our foes and the lay of the land." She recalled Omar Al-Nazar expressing his view that the Immortals' favour was given most freely when it was earned. She saw the reasoning in that. The warlord had spent weeks assessing his target and developing a suitable strategy over time...
Burrhus had lesser reserves of patience. "Why wait?" he asked, sounding restless. His pegasus was unsettled and whinnying lightly, perhaps having smelled the deaths of many of its kind on the air. "I say we burst in, we have the cleric's prayers to insulate us against their breath."
"Do you remember the last dragon’s breath?" she asks snappily.
“Yes,” replied the gladiator, unfazed, “it was large and I survived didn’t I?”
Lana’s laugh was disparaging and a little unkind. “Of course you survived. That dragon was on Death’s door. We’re talking several dragons, uninjured, able to breathe on you at the same time if we let them.”
“They’re young, how hot can their flames be?"
"Hot like a volcano," she replied, "hot enough to melt your flesh and turn your bones to ash, believe me. We need a strategy if we’re to survive. The layout of their lair would be a starting point."
"Is that so crucial to know?"
Her exasperation increased. "Burrhus, would you enter an arena which could be any shape or size? Given a choice, wouldn't you like to know the layout in advance? If I am to keep us all safe using my spells, I would know what the interior of the lair looks like."
"Then I'll go take a look," Burrhus got to his feet.
"No!" Lana gestured for him to sit down. "You're wearing metal armour, for pity's sake. So are you Brunnhild. They'll hear you coming from miles off. Tactics must be used against dragons. They might be asleep, although that's not guaranteed and even if they are sleeping they will wake at the slightest disturbance. If we plan ahead we might get a pre-emptive strike. Any harm we inflict will make it harder for them to breathe on us fully.
"We could fly in on my carpet, but I can't risk exposing it to flame. I could cast spells to keep our feet off the ground… but that would be three separate enchantments gone from my repertoire."
This idea appealled to Burrhus. “You’re saying that’s possible? And that way, we wouldn’t make any sound on our way in?” His gaze passed between the other two. “Surely that’s worth doing, if it means the dragons stay sleeping?”
“If,” Brunnhild stressed the word, “they’re even sleeping in the first place.”
"That’s right,” said Lana. “We can’t count on any of them being asleep. And if just one is awake, it’ll wake the others straightaway. However I have a philtre which will come in useful."
Burrhus rolled his eyes. "Why didn't you say that? Speak plainly woman. What does it do?"
"It lets me control dragons," she spat.
This took the gladiator aback. "Then why are we having this discussion about planning when you can just make the dragons… roll over and die?"
"It won't work that way," Lana said. "In fact I'm not entirely certain what the effect will be. There's no guarantee I'll be able to control any of them, in fact. But if I can, it will stop them breathing on us."
"Mind if I sample?"
"The potion, you mean?"
Lana considered this a very forward request. "Yes I do mind! Hands off."
"I can bestow protection against the dragons' breath," Brunnhild reminded the others. "But only two of us. Lana, as my employer I will leave it to you to decide which of us should benefit."
Lana had already decided. "Cast it on the two of you. I intend to use my magic from afar, so I will not be up close if I can help it. At least that's the plan." She laughed nervously. “You two will need the protection more than I.”
Brunnhild began her first protection chant, though at the end she grasped Lana by the wrist and coolness flooded her body. She then drew forth a coin and tossed it; Burrhus called the toss and won.
"Thor smiles upon you," she told him as she began her second chant.
Burrhus looked not entirely pleased. "I don't need the extra protection," he replied gruffly as Brunnhild grasped him by the upper arm. Then, in a slightly softer tone, he added, "If Thor wants to smile on me that's well and good but I hope he smiles that bit more on his own follower."
For the first time Lana thought she saw a compassionate, more serious side to Burrhus. "I agree," she said, "you've left yourself dangerously exposed."
Brunnhild shrugged. "My faith will protect me," was all she had to say in response. Lana made a vow to use the every bit of mastery the potion of control gave her to deflect the dragons' breath away from her steadfast companion.
"Are we ready?"
All three nodded. "We’d best get in there before this protection gives out," said Burrhus.
Lana began a series of enchantments.
Moments later the three were passing through the cave entrance and along the broad passage which led into the mountain beyond. None of their feet touched the ground; in what she thought was a clever saving of high level spell slots, a trio of Lanas were Levitating while keeping hold of Brunnhild’s hammer, the cleric herself Flying, while Burrhus followed behind Lana seated upon a Floating Disc. Lana used her free hand to quaff her potion of red dragon control, conscious that she wouldn't be able to consume any other potions while that one remained in effect. As the ruby liquid passed her lips she experienced a state of supreme determination and confidence, a harsh and unforgiving sensation, almost a cruel joy which for a moment she found herself wanting to revel in. She realised she would be able to extend that feeling of dominance outward from herself to compel the dragons to obey her will.
"From now on," said Lana calmly, her nerves steadied somewhat by the magic of the potion, "remember what we agreed. There's to be no talking."
They had agreed that to speak would be foolish and would risk awakening any of the sleeping dragons.
As they advanced silently along the tunnel, which sloped downward, there came the increasingly strong smell of charred flesh.
"Smells like a barbeque," whispered Burrhus genially, only to be hushed by his companions. More and more bones and feathers lined the sides of the tunnel - further evidence of pegasi having been devoured - and there were additional signs of wreckage such as broken wagons. The dragons must have flown far and wide to bring back riches for their hoard.
The air became stiflingly warm and hotter the further the party progressed. Lana brought out her Beady Eye and sent it bobbing along the tunnel, but it could only travel 50 feet forward and there was little light to illuminate its path. All the same, there appeared to be a dim light up ahead. After what seemed like an eternity, she gave Brunnhild’s hammer three shakes. In turn, the cleric reached behind her and squeezed Burrhus’ shoulder three times. Those were the agreed signals that the creatures lay ahead.
As they advanced meticulously slowly and quietly, Lana wondered whether any of the beasts which awaited would be capable of speaking. It was immaterial, she told herself, they were vicious predators and she had been tasked with exterminating them. She would need to stay alert all the same, in case any of them were spellcasters such as the previous dragon had been.
The companions entered a large cavern off which several smaller caves could be seen to branch. The ceiling was thirty feet high at its tallest point but closer to twenty in most places. The air hung heavy with heat and smog which was stifling and oppressive; despite the freezing cold outside Lana could not have called it a welcome change. The red-scaled inhabitants which she had just scarcely glimpsed through her beady eye were no mere hatchlings; they were each just slightly smaller than the spellcasting red to whom Lana had spoken. And there were three of them. They lay across their amassed wealth which fanned out from the centre of the cavern. At the centre something could be seen glowing bright red, pulsing almost like a heart. It was piled around with gold. Even from a distance the air around it could be seen to be hazy; whatever it was, it seemed to be giving off a great amount of heat. The dragons were lazing around it. Two had their eyes closed. One did not.
The one which did not reared and vented its breath at the cave entrance.
Hasted by Lana's magic, the companions lost no time in distancing themselves from one another. Brunnhild flew to one side, while Burrhus rolled off the floating disc unsheathing his greatsword as he did so.
Flanked by her dual images, Lana hunkered and exerted her will via the effect of the potion. The dragon which was directing its breath at the cave entrance found itself tilting its heard toward the ceiling; the flames which it had aimed at the entrance gave out long before they reached the intruders. The dragon, which appeared to be the smallest of those present, then began laying into one of its siblings with tooth and claw. The second dragon woke and reacted angrily, snapping and clawing to defend itself and appeared unaware, at least for the time being, that there were intruders in its lair.
Against their will, both dragons ceased grappling with one another long enough to vent twin blasts of flame upward toward the ceiling. That’s three blasts so far, Lana thought. Half a dozen more then we'll have less to worry about.
This left a third dragon sleeping. It looked to be the largest present. Lana reached out through the influence of the potion but felt unable to affect its actions. It awoke and hissed angrily when it saw its siblings fighting one another.
Burrhus and Brunnhild had closed with instructions to combat whichever of the dragons Lana appeared unable to control. Maintaining her focus on the two which were locked in combat was all she could do; she awkwardly managed to shout, "the third!" To her relief Brunnhild made sense of what she meant, and directed Burrhus to attack the dragon which had awoken last. He required no coaxing and charged. Meanwhile, the two dragons which had been fighting one another turned on the third and began tearing at its scaled flesh with their fangs and talons.
Imbued with Giant Strength and Hasted for good measure, Burrhus hewed his sword into the belly of the largest dragon then followed immediately with a swipe that dug further into the dragon's exposed flesh. It opened its jaws to breathe but then the teeth of one of its own kin clamped around its neck, forcing its jaws upward toward the ceiling which had already received three fiery blasts. The dragon which Burrhus had injured coughed and choked as a result; Lana hoped that meant the breath had gone to waste.
Due to the fighting being in close quarters, Lana realised she wouldn't have an opening to cast any of her damaging spells such as Ice Storm or Lightning Bolt, however it didn't seem to matter. The potion was proving effective. While the dragon which had been last to awaken was struggling to get free of its siblings' attacks, it lashed out with its claws, missing narrowly, then its tail caught Burrhus full across the chest. It wheeled and there came a hideous scraping sound as its razor talons opened a gash across the gladiator's breastplate. Blood flowed from underneath. The wound appeared to be bad; Brunnhild intoned a prayer and reached out to touch Burrhus on his arm. This stopped the blood flowing, though his movement as he lifted his sword appeared to pain him.
As one of the controlled dragons raised its head to expel breath for what Lana believed would be its last time, a portion of the superheated ceiling cracked and broke away. Brunnhild, who had been standing underneath, cried out in alarm and rolled to narrowly avoid being crushed by the falling rock. This left her exposed to attack, and it was an opening which the uncontrolled dragon took advantage of. Its jaws snapped shut around her waist, sinking painfully into her midsection. Brunnhild managed to not scream, and hit the dragon hard on its snout with a downward thrust of her hammer which caused it to let go. All the same, she was badly wounded.
"Brunnhild!" Lana shouted, hearing the supreme confidence which the potion bestowed enter her voice. "Heal yourself, that's an order!"
Mildly detached as ever, despite the severity of her injury, Brunnhild nodded and placed a hand to her midsection. That was her last healing for the day, Lana realised, now spent. Undaunted, the cleric raised her hammer and hit the nearest dragon a great retributive whack to its front quarter.
Her companions' injuries aside, the fight was going well, or so Lana believed. She ordered one of the controlled dragons to distance itself from the fighting; it retreated fifty feet or so to a far side of the cavern wall. Neither of its kin prevented it from going. Now safely away from her companions, Lana outstretched her hand and blasted the dragon from afar with cold. It had already sustained a considerable amount of injury, therefore Lana was surprised when it did not drop but came bounding at her through the snow and ice which was already melting in the cavern’s heat. She attempted to re-establish her mental dominance but the potion or the dragon’s own willpower would not allow it. Instead, acting in desperation, she blasted the dragon with five glowing arrows which were enough to fell it; as its claws dispatched her Mirror Images, it slumped lifelessly before her.
To her horror, as she returned her focus to the main fight, the uncontrolled dragon drew back its head and breathed searing flame over Burrhus. The man howled as the fire washed over him, melting his skin and portions of his armour. The dragon then slashed with its talons; Burrhus managed to dodge the first attack and caught just a glancing blow from the second.
The sole dragon which remained under Lana's control was considerably smaller than the one which had breathed on Burrhus but she channelled her will into having it restrain its sibling. The two dragons rolled atop the hoard, scattering gold and silver coins in all directions. She sensed a reserve of breath within the smaller dragon and forced it to breathe in the other dragon's face. This caused no visible harm but it was another blast gone to waste. The larger of the two dragons pushed its sibling forcibly aside, breaking free and seemed to have made sense of the overall scenario. Never underestimate a dragon, Lana recalled the adage. It turned and made a beeline for Lana.
Standing less than thirty feet away, without the protection of Mirror Images, Lana acted in desperate self-preservation and abandoned the effect of her potion to resort to spellcasting. There was insufficient room to loose a lightning bolt, as her companions were close by, therefore she summoned amber shards and blasted the creature for all she was worth. It howled with pain but kept coming, its eyes possessing the malevolent glint which was now all-too-familiar to her. She had hoped the shards might fell the creature but it was not to be so. It made it to within ten feet but then screamed with pain. Burrhus, despite injury, had used his magically enhanced strength to clamber up the dragon's spiny back, then had raised his great sword aloft and plunged it between the dragon's shoulderblades. The distraction had saved Lana's life, she knew.
Off to one side, she saw with hideous clarity that Brunnhild was combating the other dragon in single hand combat. She forced herself to resume mental focus and called to Brunnhild to get out of the way. The cleric stayed her hammer as the dragon stopped attacking. She stared at Lana for a second before breaking away and distancing herself. Lana invoked an Ice Storm and the smallest dragon dropped within seconds.
In the instant that followed there came a resounding BOOM! and tremors shook the cavern. More sections of the overheated ceiling broke away and rained down across the hoard. Burrhus had been clinging to the dragon's back, unshakeable, until the dragon rammed its own back against the cavern ceiling in a desperate attempt to shake off the gladiator and his blade. It detached from the ceiling whereas Burrhus did not until a moment later. The dragon whirled, catching the gladiator in its jaws as he fell, and sinking its fangs into the man's abdomen and gut. It proceeded to shake him like a dog shaking a rat to kill it.
"Burrhus!" Lana screamed in horror at the gruesome spectacle. As Brunnhild raced to Burrhus' aid, the dragon tossed him on the ground, before descending on him with its talons. They sliced through the man's armour and into his ribcage to expose his internal organs. Lana watched in horror as his entrails spilled forth, glistening like sausages. Try as he might, even Hasted, Burrhus could not get free as the dragon's claw held him pinned. The beast coughed and hacked a great gout of flame into the gap it had created in the man's armour. He screamed as the flames seared his insides, then he fell silent.
Lana levelled her Wand and blasted the dragon’s abdomen with freezing cold, which caused it to collapse - a quick death which, had there been any justice, should have been longer and drawn out for what it had done to Burrhus. Lana cursed herself, thinking she had been keeping accurate count of the dragon’s breath in the fight and could have taken more care.
Finally, after a long fight, all the dragons had been slain but at a cost.
Lana’s wand clattered to one side while she threw herself upon her knees beside Burrhus and attempted to administer first aid. His eyes opened and closed slowly, as if delirious. He was staring at her (or was it through her?) and was murmuring words which were incomprehensible. Brunnhild stood by ineffectually, having expended all her healing during the fight, and proclaimed that she could do nothing to save him.
Her vision became obscured by tears as she realised he was beyond saving. His innards gave off an acrid, burning stench and made a gurgling sound.
He seemed to gain lucidity momentarily and tried to speak but couldn't form the words. Finally the light in his eyes gave out. His eyes remained fixed in Brunnhild’s direction as Lana closed them and withdrew.
Read the concluding instalment HERE
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