With Karnus having unlocked the power of the Staff of Hutaaka, the party felt ready to challenge their most dangerous foe to date. Soon one of the crimelords of the Dymrak Forest would be no more, the goblin tribes would pose less of a threat to the outlying villages and (as additional incentive) the dragon's hoard would increase the party's coffers.
Five Go Dragon Hunting...
Backpacks were stocked, supplies were raided from the Inn's larder and worn-out travelling boots were pulled on. The companions departed Specularum on horseback, following the Eastron Road out of the busy capital. This road, if followed far enough, would lead all the way to the border with Thyatis, but the companions had no wish to go that far. They would enter the Dymrak a few miles beyond the village of Glaston, then Karnus would attempt to retrace his steps of around a fortnight ago. With any luck the dragon would not have had time to relocate his lair.
That evening the party stopped by a roadside inn where Karameikan guards were taunting travellers from neighbouring Thyatis. The party did their best to act as intermediaries and dissolve the clear tension between the sides, but to no avail. A fullblown brawl erupted. The companions later learned that this was nothing new - a common occurence so close to the border. As such the inn's regular patrons paid the disturbance little heed.
Homecoming to Glaston
Travelling on, the party reached Glaston where Lana had spent her childhood. According to the villagers, goblin raids were slightly less frequent than they had been before, thanks to the party's efforts against the tribes which had allied themselves with Golthar and his Iron Ring lackeys. Lana had the opportunity to catch up with old friends including Agatha Bakewell, the cheery old halfling who had taught the young Lana all she knew of the cooking arts. Upon hearing that Lana and her friends were running an Inn in busy Specularum, the matronly halfling was seen to wipe a proud tear from one eye. The party regaled the villagers with tales of their adventures, and much revelry was enjoyed that night as the village folk celebrated their guests' achievements.
The prospect of fighting a grown dragon weighed on the companions' thoughts that night. Karnus had encountered the wyrm two weeks before, but nobody in the village had heard of a dragon dwelling so close to their home. Still, the Forest was a deep and forbidding place, which concealed a great many mysteries. Few slept well that night, even Drewen, despite being weary from storytelling by the hearth with his ale tankard being constantly refilled.
Next morning, the party bid what they hoped would be a temporary farewell to the villagers and entered the forest. As they progressed, the trees grew thicker and darker around them until they were in shadowy depths of the Forest where few humans had ever set foot. Or few had ever returned...
Landmarks or other distinguishing features were few; Karnus had difficulty locating his track from the previous visit. He stopped regularly to take stock of his surroundings and gain his bearings. During one such pause, while the companions were wondering whether they were completely lost, a slow toppling sound was heard and a loud voice called out - "Timber!!". A centuries old oak crashed to the forest floor dead in front of the startled companions. Their horses reared and the ferrets bolted into the undergrowth. A madman appeared, wielding a heavy axe in both hands. Whether he had felled the tree for any reason would remain unclear; try as the party might, the man refused to speak with them. He shrieked and disappeared into the dense woods.
Greatly unnerved, the party made their way around the fallen tree and pressed onward. They were forced to fight their way through thick growth; the forest closed in on all sides as if resisting their progress. Karnus professed that he had entirely lost the track - the dragon could be anywhere. Near or far, who knew?
As the five were ready to give up and try to find their way back to Glaston, Drewen's eye caught a hint of movement. A figure stepped out from behind an ancient oak. The mad woodcutter again? No. This newcomer wore plain brown robes and his feet made no sound as they moved across the carpet of bracken. Everything about this stranger indicated that he was entirely at home in the woodland surroundings.
The Giver of Names
Warily, the party greeted the stranger. He closed to within a few yards and pulled back his cowl to reveal the face of a wizened old man, with trailing white hair and beard. Vasily asked the old man his name, but the sage only smiled. He stated that he was not in a position to reveal his own name ... but that he would provide the names of others. He asked the names of each of the party members, stating that in return he would provide any other name they asked of him.
In that case, Lana responded, would the sage know anything of a green dragon living in the area? On hearing this the man laughed. He asked why the party sought this "Great Green". The party stated that its duty was to rid the countryside of the threat which the dragon posed, as they had evidence to indicate that the intelligent and dangerous creature served as a co-ordinator of goblin activity in the region. The party accepted that they also desired the dragon's hoard (no doubt made up of ill-gotten gains, looted and plundered from the travellers of the Eastron Road) as would any other adventurers in the land. In any case, the dragon was a powerful being, and would have every chance to defend itself. The stranger seemed less than impressed.
The stranger began strolling among the surrounding trees, turning the party's words in his mind. At long last he seemed to make a decision - he would grant them the name they sought.
"Korak." A breeze began to blow and the sage pulled his robes around him. He continued talking, of the ways of the forest, and of quests, and of dragonkind. Still strolling, he cast a strangely final gaze at the party members then stepped behind the broad trunk of the next tree in his path. He never emerged out the other side.
Pressing on through the forest, wondering who their enigmatic benefactor might have been, the five wandered on. Within minutes they emerged onto a path where Karnus stopped and reflected. The track was familiar. They wondered whether the occurrence was somehow the doing of the mysterious stranger.
Having regained his bearings, Karnus led his companions to the outskirts of an enormous clearing within which stood a small hill. Karnus informed his comrades that the hill was hollow, and that the lair of the dragon was inside. The hill also served as a home to a large number of goblins - the wyrm's loyal minions. The blue-robed mage tightened his grasp on his cedarwood staff as he relayed this information.
It seemed the companions had made a poor job of concealing themselves as a goblin patrol spotted them almost immediately. A group of the grey-skinned humanoids detached from the hillock and charged at the party, who readied themselves with spells and weapons. It then became apparent that there were goblins all around. There came a swooshing sound, and a heavy tree branch hurtled out of the forest, batting Threy and Vasily on the backs of their heads. Both clerics fell unconscious, and to their friends' horror were dragged into the undergrowth by the goblins. In the meantime Drewen, Karnus and Lana held their own against a dozen goblins, smiting with hammer, staff and dagger, and at last emerged victorious. Glancing around, not a trace of either cleric remained.
The party had been reduced to three - dwarf and two magic-users. What had become of their comrades? The trio could not abandon hope, since the two clerics were likely in danger, and needed to be rescued. The companions resumed their spying position and made a better effort of concealing themselves. Hiding in the undergrowth, the diminished party concocted a plan using all the resources they had available to them - mainly spells.
Lana agreed to cast a Fly spell on Karnus who would turn himself invisible and attempt to scout the inside of the lair without being detected. Then, Karnus would report back to his comrades and the plan could proceed from there. Without further ado the blue-robed mage flew off, unseen, toward the cave entrance.
Into the lair
Karnus discovered a large number of goblins camped within the entrance to the cave complex. Several goblins were mounted upon dire wolves which sniffed the air suspiciously as Karnus hovered nearby. The mage chose not to tarry and flew deeper into the cavern before the wolves could alert their masters to the presence of an intruder.
Further along the passage there was more than just goblins to preoccupy any would-be trespasser. The hairs on the back of Karnus' neck stood on end as the second deterrent manifested itself in the form of a deathly voice calling to him from the shadows. There could be no doubt that the voice did not belong to any mortal creature, but was supernatural in nature. Karnus' limbs seized with fear and he fought an overwhelming urge to turn and flee from the cave as fast as he could. Karnus found himself face-to-face with a Ghost. This haunt was a former adversary of the dragon, who upon being beaten in combat had been condemned to wander the tunnels of the dragon's lair in spirit form for all time, or until somebody managed to slay the beast. The ghost wailed miserably at Karnus, emploring him to turn back in the face of insurmountable might, however Karnus resolved to remain calm and pressed on regardless.
He at last entered a familiar space which was dank and dark, the air filled by fumes emanating from the dragon's breath. A voice boomed out from the darkness, declaring that it was hungry and could not wait to satisfy its need. It spoke of the impudence of humans who had dared invade its lair. Karnus froze in anxiety, guessing that the dragon had detected his presence through magical means. His invisibility would provide no further benefit, or so it seemed.
The voice chanted a few sharp words and magical light illuminated the cavern, which seemed vast. For the second time, Karnus' eyes were blinded by the sheen of gold and silver coins - the hoard of Korak. Yet to Karnus' dismay he marked that the hoard had diminished since he last gazed upon it. Evidently since Karnus had discovered the whereabouts of the beast's lair, Korak had found time to move much of the treasure, especially the choice magical items which he seemed to prize above all else. Karnus silently fumed as he recalled the books, scrolls and wands which he could no longer expect to acquire.
To his relief however, it became apparent that the dragon was not addressing Karnus, but two armoured figures, gagged and bound to stakes in a corner of the lair. Threy and Vasily! Without a second thought Karnus rose into the air, still under his aura of invisibility, and sped swiftly out of the cavern to rejoin Drewen and Lana.
The dwarf and mage were thankful that their companions were still alive, for the meantime at any rate, but the three of them would need to act swiftly to ensure the clerics' continued wellbeing. A confrontation with the dragon was inevitable. Firstly however, the three companions needed to get through the horde of goblins and wolves which were camped inside the entrance to their master's lair. Not wishing to waste time or health fighting such trivial foes, Lana emerged from the undergrowth, brushed down her robes and began a spell. A handful of goblins noticed the lone mage and reached for their weapons, but too late - a mass of brambles, vines and creepers reached up from the forest soil and began to wrap around every goblin within thirty feet of the cave mouth. Within seconds a bank of vegetation was in place, inside which were trapped more than three dozen goblins with their wolven mounts. Lana smiled contentedly at her handiwork. Drewen gaped. Karnus rolled his eyes and bid the other two follow him into the cave.
The three crept along the passage which led to the dragon's lair. Karnus foreworned his companions of the presence of the ghost, but still all three members were disturbed upon coming face-to-face with such a potent member of the undead. Drewen and Karnus pressed boldly onward, but Lana tarried a moment, trying to stress her point that the three of them were on their way to slay the dragon and put the spirit to rest. The ghost refused to grant the party its blessing and laughed instead - a centuries-old and empty laugh which came close to being derisory. Lana clenched her fists, determined not to let the ghost's nihilistic attitude sway her, and marched resolutely after her comrades.
Nervously, the three edged toward the cavern entrance, their bodies trembling as they pressed themselves into whatever shadowy recesses they could find in the wall. Karnus who remained invisible had no need to seek a hiding place but remained on edge all the same. The three listened as the dragon continued to speak to with the captured clerics. He clearly intended to devour them both, but much in the manner of a cat seemed to be playing with his food. To draw out the humans' discontent to its fullest, Korak announced that he would take a short nap before commencing his feast.
As soon as the dragon closed his eyes and settled into the pile of coins, the three mobile party members crept silently into the cavern and proceeded toward where the clerics were being held. It was plain to see that both Threy and Vasily's eyes were wide with terror at the prospect of being devoured alive by a dragon. And such a large one! Korak was immense, at least twice the size of the young black dragon Falaryx whom the party had faced in Blight Swamp around a year ago. They had barely emerged from that fight with their lives - could they now hope to survive combat with such a formidable foe as Korak? Doubt began to play on their minds as they surveyed their sleeping foe. Sheening green scales as hard as steel gleamed along his front and flank, and as he yawned, his open maw revealed fangs which were as long, curving and deadly sharp as scimitars.
Karnus, who still benefited from magical flight, made his way to Threy's side and began loosening the knotted ropes which held the cleric in place. Lana and Drewen made haste across the cavern also, but had only reached half way when the dragon yawned, stretched, and sat up... he hadn't been able to sleep. Blinking to clear his vision, the dragon's gaze fell on Lana and Drewen - uninvited guests in his lair! The dragon's massive lungs filled rapidly, as he prepared to blast the pair with his lethal breath.
Lana and Drewen were panicking but needed to stall for time. "Hold!" Drewen called out, raising a hand. "We would speak with you! We have important informations regarding, erm..." Drewen wracked his brain and glanced around the cave, seeking inspiration of any kind. Then it struck. To no-one else but a dwarf would it have struck. "Regarding your gold!" Lana gave her companion a perplexed look, but hoped the reference to material wealth would be enough to cause the dragon would stall.
Indeed the dragon paused for a moment, seeming to turn over the dwarf's words in his mind. Dragons being greedy creatures and always hungry to expand their hoard, Korak's curiosity could not turn down even the slightest chance of increased wealth. He indicated that he would listen to what the petty creatures had to say.
Drewen appeared pleased that his ploy had worked but froze, uninspired as to what to say next. Lana decided to take the initiative.
"In truth we seek an audience with Lord Korak, Mighty Green and Scourge of the Dyrmrak Forest. Do we have the honour of addressing the same?"
The dragon nodded unenthusiatically.
Lana went on to spin an intricate web of tall tales, claiming that she and Drewen had been sent as emissaries of Bargle, wizard of the Black Eagle Barony who sought an alliance with the noble wyrm Korak. This wizard had been ally to a young black dragon named Falaryx, but who had proved himself undeserving of Bargle's friendship, having been easily defeated by a petty and gold-hungry band of human adventurers. Treasure-seekers, Lana spat. Now therefore, Bargle would only have dealings with the most noble and most powerful of all beings in the Grand Duchy. And he had chosen the mighty Korak.
Such words of flattery seemed to stoke the ego of the haughty and self-obsessed dragon. Lana and Drewen had stopped the dragon from vaporising them with its breath weapon. Could the plan be working? There was one truth of which each party member was acutely aware - if it came down to fight with Korak, none of them would last more than seconds if the beast was able to breathe. They had to find some way to rob it of the most dangerous threat it posed...
Enjoying hearing how his own reputation had spread beyond the borders of the Dymrak Forest, Korak bid Lana state what benefit there would be for him in allying with this Bargle chap. Drewen and Lana both spoke of a planned attack on the Duke Stefan, whose palace in the city of Specularum was the most opulent of all homes in the realm, and where there were rumoured to be great piles of gold, jewels and magical artifacts piled up in the Royal Treasury. This, they made out, was what Bargle sought - the ducal fortune! And a percentage would be given to Korak in return for his participation in the endeavour. However the wyrm was not convinced. True he needed gold to supplement his hoard, but did he require the co-operation of a human wizard such as Bargle? He thought not - Korak announced that he would launch the attack on Specularum himself. The party now had an increased need to put an end to the beast's threat. In the meantime, Korak bid the heroes depart his lair. They would be permitted to leave with their lives for having delivered valuable knowledge to him. Korak's immense stomach rumbled as he spoke, it was time to dine...
Lana and Drewen exchanged miserable glances - their plan had back-fired. They knew that as soon as they left the cave, the clerics would be eaten alive. In desperation, Lana begged Korak to grant them one last favour. She claimed to have spent her life researching the noble race of dragonkind, and had only now come so close as to see one so close up as Korak. How magnificent a creation he truly was, with his sheening scales, his muscled flank, his powerful wings ... and all her life Lana had held one wish, which now she barely dared name. She requested a demonstration of Korak's breath weapon.
This was asked for in the hope that the dragon could only use his breath once every so often - if a fight was likely to erupt at any moment, the heroes didn't stand a chance if the dragon breathed on them.
Korak granted the request. He stalked down the passage to the entrance of his lair, and laid eyes on the goblins which had been caught up in Lana's Growth of Plants effect. Deciding that these servants had failed him, he announced that he would mete punishment upon him. Before any of the heroes could intervene, Korak reared and let out a heavy blast of his breath. A stinging cloud of chlorine gas billowed from his maw, disintegrating the vegetation for a hundred feet around and doing far worse to the trapped goblins. Only a steaming crater remained of what had been an entire goblin tribe.
Korak turned and stalked back into his lair. Lana and Drewen charged after him, hoping that the brief distraction had bought Karnus enough time to free the clerics from their bonds.
About to begin feasting on Threy, Korak was frustrated that Lana and Drewen had still not left. Lana pointed out that Threy was clad from head to toe in magical plate mail armour, which she knew Korak would not wish to see harmed if he wished to add it to his hoard. Karnus had informed his companions that the great Green had a special curiosity for all things magical, and it was this truth which now worked in the heroes' favour. Lana stepped forward in a pretence of volunteering to unbuckle Threy's armour.
In that moment Korak turned his back on the party members. Karnus, still invisible, nudged Lana, who in turn glanced at Drewen. All three nodded - now was the time!
Lana garbled the words to a spell as quickly as she was able. As soon as Korak heard the spellcasting he realised the companions were not what they had claimed to be. Their cover was blown - Korak rose in angry response, his maw gaping open and his lungs inhaling deeply. Amid his massive intake of breath, Lana retained focus and completed her spell not a second too soon. A stream of sticky cords shot from her hands and wrapped tightly around the dragon's jaws. Korak's mouth was clamped shut, preventing him from exhaling. Wisps of chlorine escaped either side of his lips - although sticky, the webbing was not indestructable and would not last long. And in the meantime, there were Korak's razor-sharp talons to worry about. The companions had only a few fleeting instants to act before the sticky web would give way.
"Now!" bellowed Karnus, blinking back into sight as the eyes of his staff glowed blue and issued a fireball of staggering heat. The blast impacted directly into Korak's chest with defeaning force. The beast howled in rage, clawing furiously at the party members.
Drewen grasped his warhammer and charged forward with a cry, ready to do combat.
Lana mouthed a second spell as the dragon's claws raked through the air in her direction. Her fingertips crackled and amber-tinged lightning slammed into Korak, knocking him backward and causing his talons to miss their target.
Karnus commanded the staff once more, and a bolt of lightning more powerful than Lana's was delivered to Korak's massive flank. The beast threw a hideous glare of recognition as he set eyes on the blue-robed mage, the intruder from two weeks previous. Karnus only glowered back.
The enraged beast's jaws snapped apart, freed from Lana's Web. The party trembled in fear as Korak reared his head and breathed upon them ... but only the smallest amount of vapour was released. The wyrm had taken so much damage in the fight that it could barely produce any gas - the heroes still choked on the caustic fumes, but remained standing.
The fumes subsided leaving the companions immensely relieved - the beast was evidently on his last legs. Still he fought savagely, desperately trying to penetrate the group's defences by tooth or claw. Lana leapt forward, dagger held firmly in one hand. In that instant she recalled her mother who had been slain by goblin raiders, possibly servants of this dragon crimelord. She plunged her blade deep between Korak's eyes. The wyrm shuddered and slumped to the ground.
The battle was over - and all five companions had survived. But having defeated this creature in so short a space of time, their victory seemed hollow. Drewen surveyed the scene in disbelief, unable to believe so much damage had been dealt in little more than moments. He himself had barely landed a blow! The eyes of the Staff of Hutaaka glowed blue before fading to darkness.
Read the next instalment - Dragonhunt - The Aftermath
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