Monday, July 11, 2016

A black dragon and its secret lair

In the ensuing weeks, Beatriss and her friends heard news that the attack on Happy Valley was likely part of a larger campaign of terror emanating from an emerging swampland in the region west of Menkan, and that was becoming a catastrophe for the Sansar clan whose grazing grounds bordered the swamp. When the Lizardmen attacked, they didn’t steal horses or goats—they carried off the people. Sansar Anca sent an emissary, Perin, to request the help of his adopted son and daughter.

Tetsukichi, Beatriss, and Bangqiu, together with their henchman, ventured to the southwest corner of the empire to aid the Sansar clan. Perin, who had been spying on their enemies for several months, had located the base for the dragon people, the lizard men, and their allies—a temple built eons ago by Sakatha, the lizardman king.

They passed through a swamp that became increasingly thick and mucky as they neared their goal. One night, the party camped on a narrow hammock, Beatriss was keeping watch. Weary from scanning her immediate surroundings, thick with small life forms—frogs, snakes, overgrown insects— that overwhelmed her heat vision, that Beatriss rocked back and looked up into the clear sky. She rubbed her eyes—sometimes heat vision plays tricks—and confirmed that that there really was something in the sky, circling—maybe an owl?

Beatriss woke up the others. The flying creature began descending rapidly, narrowing its path to center on the party. It was much too large to be an owl, it could only be a dragon. Mustapha summoned a cloud of fog to obscure their position. The thick mists also obscured their view of the dragon, but they heard it land a few hundred yards away. They separated into two groups, both making a dash away from their campsite. Beatriss, with her infravision saw a stream of swamp creatures fleeing. Bangqiu, under the cover of his invisibility cloak, stood in the path and prepared his most powerful spell. His friends moved to either side.

Besides the noise of fleeing animals, the sounds of tree trunks cracking told them the dragon was rapidly drawing near. Bangqiu saw its shadow and then moments later its enormous head and darkly glowing eyes. He blasted the beast in the face with a cloud of stream—and the dragon immediately answered with a thick spray of acid. Bangqiu, reeling with the burning pain threw himself into the mud as his companions closed around the dragon. Beatriss slashed it grievously with her sword. It flapped its wings and began to rise from the ground. Al-Fitar and Tetsukichi had their bows ready—arrows tore through one of the dragon’s wings before it could raise above the treetops. Plummeting back to the ground, it turned its claws out and landed on Naron, pinning him to the ground. With his one free arm, Naron found his dagger and plunged it into the dragon’s neck. Steaming black gore poured from the wound and the dragon collapsed. Ju-Mei tended the wounds of Bangqiu and Naron and settled them into a deep, restful sleep. The rest of the party kept a nervous, exhausted watch, too shaken by what they had experienced to sleep.

The next morning, Bangqiu awakened early, feeling much refreshed. Despite the shock of being blasted with acidic dragon spittle, and the gruesome look of the burns all over his body, he felt strong and hale, eager to press on. Naron on the other hand, had twisted his ankle. A day of rest for him seemed more advantageous than a day of extremely slow and painful travel, especially if they should find the temple so well-fortified as to force a retreat. Beatriss and Ju-Mei stayed with him while the others—Perin, their guide, plus Tetsukichi, Al-Fitar, and Mustapha, Bangqiu and Kafka would scout ahead. Before setting out, Kafka, remembering his master speak of such things, collected some of the dragon’s blood. Bangqiu, assisting him, discovered that the dragon carried a smooth disk of obsidian in its mouth. All considered this a fortuitous omen.

Indeed, after an hour of travel with Perin, the group spotted the temple, rising above the surrounding morass on a high mound of packed earth. They heard noises inside—loud and reptilian—and decided to press forward. The party charged up the steps with Banqiu, camouflaged by his magic cloak, leading the way. About a dozen half-human, half-dragon monsters were camped in a large, columned hall. When they brandished their weapons, Bangqiu released a cloud of steam. Then the young magician fell back while Tetsukichi and Al-Fitar charged forward to fight the few survivors.

Once the battle was over, the party explored. The back wall proved to be a curtain of shells. The party pushed through it and found themselves in another large room, dominated by three round pools of scummy water. Two of the walls were decorated with frescoes of humans and lizard folk engaged in battle. The back wall had been sculpted in bas-relief to depict a leering demon. As they took in these fearsome sights, the pools began bubbling.

Wanting the support of Beatriss and her associates, the expedition party retreated to the swamp. When the full party was re-united, they discussed their next plan of action. They decided that rather than camp another night in the swamp they should move to the temple. Once there, Mustapha and Ju-may became strangely animated; rather than simply casting spells when directed, they participated actively in the discussion as Beatriss, Tetsukichi, and Bangqiu discussed what to do next. Bangqiu suggested that the black gem from the dragon’s mouth might be a type of key and that they should insert it in the carved mouth of the demon’s mouth. Sure enough, a previously secret (and very large) door swung open, revealing what must have been the dragon’s lair—and its hoard. Besides the piles of coins (mainly silver), and jewelry, the party noted several weapons of fine workmanship and likely magical powers. Ju-May, looking behind him, noted that the bubbling water was forming into snake like creatures.

Bangiqu, calling on his elemental power over water, flung the water creature out of its pool. It splashed onto the floor as plain water. Bangqiu and Ju-May measured the depth of the pool with long sticks and finding it shallow enough to allow wading, entered. Continuing to prod the bottom, they found a number of heavy, but movable objects. These proved to be bars of silver stamped with the imperial seal. Lacking the magical energy to deal with the other water snakes, Bangqiu urged his companions to join him in seeking refuge in the dragon’s cave. After confirming that the door could be opened from the inside, the entire party pushed inside. They searched it carefully, found there were no other exits and decided to rest for the night and then decide how to proceed.

While his companions slept, Ju May meditated. After several hours, his meditation was disturbed by the sound of voice in the chamber outside the dragon’s lair. Ju May roused the others and they all listened breathlessly to the boisterous conversation of a dozen or more creatures, with loud reptilian voices. The party prepared to fight and Bangqiu, translated what the creatures were saying. They returning from a successful raid on the human lands, they had enjoyed several nights in the swamp, but now they were looking forward to relaxing by the river below. The party heard the sound of a stone door being opened, and of the gregarious creatures passing out of the room one-by- one. The party surmised that there was a hidden entrance, probably a trapdoor in the floor right outside their hiding place. The party heard the sounds of the bubbling pools and heard the reptilian creatures joking with each other and taunting the weird snakes that formed from the water of the pools. One of the last of the creatures idly stuck its green scaled finger into the dragon lair “keyhole” while idly wondering how to get at the treasure inside. Beatriss discouraged Bangqiu from cutting off the finger. The finger was retracted, the voice grew faint, there was the sound of stone grinding against stone, and then the only sound was the thrashing of the weird pools.

After waiting a few minutes, Bangqiu opened the door and blasted the two pools he hadn’t blasted the night before. Again, the water weirds were flung from each pool on a sizeable wave only to splash apart on the floor. More silver bars were retrieved. Meanwhile, Tetsukichi located the trap door.

Beatriss, who seemed to have contracted some type of fever during her trip through the swamp, wanted to rest in the dragon’s cave. Naron and Jumay insisted that they would stay with her.

But the others went down the ladder . . .