I sit in the Tasty Pig near to the roaring fire on another dark winter night, enjoying David’s finest ale, Ducky’s lyre filling the room, penning this journal. It seems, after the events of the great battle for Hightower, that our time living in this tavern may soon be drawing to a close, and so now seems a fine night to record the events of one of our few adventures that began not from some clue buried in an ancient text, not from a dire omen appearing on the horizon, but in this very common room, on a similar winter night.
It seems ages ago, but it was nary a month back, just before the Yuletide festival, with pine wreaths garlanding the tavern halls, when the Tasty Pig’s door burst open in a clatter, silencing the noisy room and stopping Ducky’s song mid-chord. Standing in the doorway with the snow blowing in around her was Darandia! The blue-skinned fae drew gawking stares from all the townsfolk as I got up to close the door behind her, and ushered her to our table with Kemanorel, Jorven, and Aldo. BingBong and Oz were also enjoying their usual spots at the bar, and wandered over to investigate the commotion. Darandia seemed very shaken up, and clearly uncomfortable to be inside the walls of a human settlement and not in her normal locale, and quickly we coaxed out the reason for her coming: her sister had been kidnapped!
She told us details of her family then, and how her sister Delimbiyra had been out on a foraging trip, but had not returned. When she investigated, she found signs of a struggle and tracks leading north into the mountains. Not knowing who else to turn to for help, with her parents worried sick, she had rushed to Aiwan to find us and enlist our aid.
Darandia remains a most welcome ally in the normally hostile wilds, and we were all eager to aid her, rescue Delimbiyra, and hopefully put an end to an as yet unknown threat in these wild marches, we threw together our gear and set out at as soon as the storm broke and dawn’s light arrived.
We rode hard over the river and through the wastelands, skirting the edge of the canyons and coming early on the second day to the beginning of the hilly region beyond which lay Darandia’s village. Darandia guided us swiftly and surely to the spot where her sister had been abducted from, and thankfully the snow had not fallen freshly here, making it easy enough for Oz to pick up the tracks himself, confirming Darandia’s earlier work. She left us then to return home and comfort her parents, and await her sister’s safe return, with our assurance that it would be soon.
We followed the tracks up through the hills and into the heights, the snow growing deeper as we trekked higher. Soon the tracks of the kidnappers became faint from fresher snowfall, but by then it was clear there was only one pass over the mountains in the direction they had been heading, so we could continue to follow in haste.
Our chase was slowed though, by two encounters with dangerous beasts of that snowy range. The first was during our ascent, while still deep in the pine trees that coated the mountainside. Horus began to circle tightly ahead, and Aldo called a halt to our march, whispering back that he had the noise of animals moving towards us in the brush. Suddenly, a herd of twelve dire beasts burst into the clearing, cloven hoofed and with great antlers, like enormous shaggy deer, and giving forth aggressive grunts as they caught sight of our group, they wheeled and charged! Kemanorel prevented the whole herd from stampeding over us with a patch of grasping black tentacles, and Oz, Aldo and I began to pick off the stragglers. This fight would have been relatively unremarkable but for the fact that the leader of the herd had somehow been imbued with magical energy. A baleful red light glowed from its nose, and it surprised Ducky and Kemanorel by blasting them with beams of energy, inflicting much hurt before they refocused their attacks and brought it down, kept in the fight by BingBong’s healing.
Our next encounter was not to have so fortunate an end.
Higher up now, above the treeline, we had come almost to the highest point in the pass, when in the middle of the path we came upon an enormous mound of snow. We would have simply rode past, thinking it just another snow drift, so much larger simply by a curiosity of the wind patterns in the mountains, but Aldo again drew us up short, and pointed out the subtle patterns that showed that beneath a thin layer of snow waited a colossal beast.
Its ruse foiled, an abominable yeti (Ducky called out its name in awe as it arose) shook free from its disguise with a great roar that shook the mountains, blasting out from its maw a great cone of icy magic that caught all of us but the sprightly Aldo in the blast, as he dived off his horse to the side, while with a pop Jorven jaunted away just out of range.
Though the battle began on the backfoot, things went smoothly enough through the bulk of the fight, with Oz absorbing the brunt of the creature’s powerful claws, while Aethon bore me thunderously through the snow to strike at its flank as I rode by. As the wounds Oz inflicted began to multiply, reddening the snow, and the fire from Kemanorel’s spells took hold all over its fur, Ducky called out to warn us that the tales of this beast spoke of a mighty explosion of ice that resulted from its death. We all began to spread away from the yeti, wounded as many of us were from the initial blast of cold magic, but Oz was embroiled in his furious battle with the monster, and before Ducky could throw himself into a snowbank for cover, his axe bit deep into the creature’s skull as it tried to bite at him, and with a deafening blast the world turned white for a while.
The group picked themselves up from the snow apprehensively, and I rode back from the distance I had retreated, finding Oz standing relatively unharmed, his buckler a bit battered from absorbing the brunt of the blast. But Ducky was not so lucky. He was lying on his back in the snow, his small form blasted twenty or so feet away from where the flying carpet had fallen. He was not moving. A large spike of ice was embedded in his chest, his blood pooling beneath him, lifeless eyes staring up into the winter sky. Dead.
Memories of Krom flashing through our heads, before Oz had even had time to finish removing the yeti’s head and wander over to investigate the hub-bub, I had yanked BingBong over to Ducky’s body and we began compiling the expensive components for the spell to return our gnomish friend’s soul to his body. Many times had a party member come close to falling in the past months, but this was the first time we had really needed this spell. We removed the ice, patched up the wounds as best we could, and BingBong began the incantation. After a tense few seconds that seemed to crawl on forever, Ducky’s eyes twitched and he inhaled in a great gasping breath, and sat up coughing and wracked with a sudden shuddering fever, that passed quickly and violently. Our friend was back. But there was a sadness in his eyes, and he told us how he felt… diminished, some of his power lost in the transition back to the material world. He tried to cast one of the newer spells he had devised, and it fizzled out in his hand. I am ashamed to say that Oz made only the most bare of conciliatory apologies, refusing to take true responsibility for an outcome that he claimed no one could have truly known would happen. The group was somewhat on edge after a tragedy that could have been avoided, but happily I think now Oz and Ducky’s friendship has moved past the regrettable accident, and in the moment we all knew there was still a mission to complete.
We reformed our train and skirted the yeti’s corpse, Ducky eyeing it warily, abnormally quiet compared to his normal jovial self, and we rode down out of the mountains without further incident.
The other side of the pass was a land we had never yet seen, the furthest north from Aiwan any of us had ventured, a great desert of rolling dunes and the occasional rocky outcrop. The tips of the dunes were dusted with a thin layer of snow, for while the mountains kept back the storms from reaching this land, it remained chilled by the winter, and what little precipitation had fell over the past two months had not melted.
Here in the sand, Oz once again picked up the trail of our quarry. It led a few miles into the desert, heading straight for one of the rocky mesas. On our way there we received the first clue of the foe we had to overcome, as Horus came diving out of the clouds, shrieking in what seemed like fright, and refused to take to the air from Oz’s shoulder again. Something frightful was out there in the sky.
We arrived soon to the mesa, and spotted a cave entrance midway up the cliffside. Apprehensive, Jorven summoned a griffin and sent her conjured creature in to scout. We heard a blast like the crack of thunder, and the cave mouth flashed with blue light, and the griffin reappeared from within, its feathers singed and smoking, and clearly wounded. Jorven sent the beast back in, hoping to lure out whatever had attacked it. We heard the blast several more times, but nothing appeared from within the cave and eventually the griffin succumbed to the attacks and vanished.
Kemanorel volunteered that together with Jorven they had enough magic to shield even our large group from magical electricity, but that we should rest to regain their spells before we ventured within. Not liking the idea of being caught in the open against the edge of a cliff, we decided to sleep within the handy extradimensional pocket he could summon, and after flying up to the opening of the cave that’s just what we did, leading to the next regrettable mistake of the adventure.
Our mounts (minus Aethon, thankfully, who simply returned to the celestial plane) had to be tied up still at the base of the cliff, and as we kept vigil through the night, we heard a loud roar and the rushing of wings, and from out of the sky came a great sweeping arc of lightning which caught the horses full blast and roasted them all to a crisp. After a shocked moment during which Aldo (who was on watch) woke the group, we all watched in horror as a blue dragon landed from its flight and began to feast on the remains. Oz was particularly broken up over the ghastly (if quick) death of his mount Pharoah, though he seemed more distraught about the loss of the (now paltry) sum of gold Pharaoh's death represented (the other 5 dead horses being those reclaimed from the Hobgoblins so many months ago, for any readers wondering).
After it finished feasting, the dragon lifted with a great flapping of its wings and dove from the air into the cave right beneath our little window back into the world. We knew now what awaited us in that cave, though the cost of said information was rather saddening, and we finished our rest nervously. None of us had fought a real dragon before, only illusions and animated skeletons.
The next morning came, and shielded by magic against electricity, we made our way into the cave, which quickly began sloping down into the rock. Quickly enough, we triggered what was apparently a magical trap, the same that the griffin had encountered, and it blasted our group repeatedly with bolts on lightning, but the shielding held, and we managed to advance past it with only some tingling and a few minor shocks.
That said, we made quite the racket tripping the trap over and over, and as we came soon to some sort of living quarters within the mesa, we were lucky that at the moment, they seemed to be unoccupied. We searched the room, but found little of interest, and continued down the tunnel, which soon split, one fork continuing roughly straight, while another went further down. Jorven and Oz estimated that we were at about ground level now, and so we investigated the ‘straight’ fork first, finding it quickly ended in a mass of loose sand and rocks, with a few gaps letting in some streams of sunlight. Kemanorel informed us of the digging ability Blue Dragons were known for, and we concluded that this was another entry or exit point for the dragon from its lair. Returning to the fork, we continued deeper underground.
At last, after maybe a total of half an hour of exploring the as-yet empty lair from top to bottom, we heard activity ahead, and Aldo crept forward, reporting back his discoveries: A large chamber, some sixty or eighty feet in height and width, with a wide ramp spiraling down to the floor from where the tunnel met it, ringed with workbenches, of all things! In it were a number of elves, some tinkering away at the benches, while two more heavily armed elves stood guard. In one corner of the room, another pile of sand and rocks could be seen, just like the one we had found above. Of the dragon, there was no other sign. But more importantly, Delimbiyra herself was there, Aldo said, painting glumly at an easel, unmistakable by the blue-tinted skin of her race.
We had found our goal, and now we sprung into action. The elves seemed totally surprised by our appearance and in a flash we charged down the ramp, taking control of the room, the guards in a standoff with Oz and BingBong while Aldo and I kept an eye on the unarmed workers.
Tense negotiations followed as the elves begged us to keep quiet, and we slowly coaxed the truth of the situation from them. They belonged to the ‘family’ of the blue dragon, whose name was Sandy Claws (an odd name for a dragon I thought but then what do I know of dragons), who had overtime kidnapped them, like Delimbiyra, in order to force them to use their artistic talents to create works of art that he sold across the land, hoarding the income as dragons are want to do. What a strange little cartel we had found under the desert! They said that Sandy was slumbering in the chamber beyond the sand-block, and seemed terrified that she would awaken and find us here, that even her “family” would not then be spared her wrath. To my ears, this sounded like pure slavery, and I urged the elves to come away with us, that if we went now we could be away before Sandy even awoke. At the least, we were there only to rescue Delimbirya, who gratefully moved away back up the ramp behind us when we told her Darandia had sent us, and if they let us free her without an issue we would leave at once.
My words seemed to be moving a few of the elves, but fear does strange things to all beings, and at once chaos broke out. One of the guards moved to attack, but BingBong grabbed his face, and with a sickening green flash the guard dropped dead like a stone. At the same time, one of the workers ran to the sand-door and began shouting the dragons name. I chased after, and cut him down before his foolish actions could endanger any more innocent lives. But alas, it was too late, and we all heard a great rumble and roar from the room beyond, and soon the sound of scratching, digging claws began to echo forth in the chamber.
The remaining elves all dived for cover beneath the workbenches as our party took up positions around the room, casting spells to empower us before the fight, Jorven summoning griffin after griffin, Aldo’s crossbow at the ready. After ten or twenty seconds, a great claw rent through the sand, and then the dragon burst forth in flight into the room. Aldo’s fired a bolt into her wing as soon as she appeared, which took her off-guard and seemed to wound her mightily, but she shook off the surprise and blasted the group from the air while remaining in flight, luckily our shielding from before held, and the battle began in earnest.
I am not so ashamed to admit, dear reader, that in this battle I did nothing. My axe was as brightly glowing and as infused with the sun’s power as I could possibly make it, but Sandy never came back to the ground before her death, and I could not reach her to land a single blow.
All praise, truly, must be given to Jorven’s griffins, who flew at the dragon in a flapping, shrieking pack, tearing away at its flanks with claw and beak, and distracting the dragon so much that it barely got a chance to attack a real target while Ducky, Aldo, and Oz bombarded it with missile fire and Kemanorel tried unsuccessfully to force it to the ground or wrap up its wings with his black tentacle spell.
Soon enough, after a loud, chaotic battle, Sandy gave one last roar and then collapsed to the ground. Eager to have done… something, I swung my axe into her neck with a mighty shout, but in truth that was more to teasingly deprive Oz the chance to behead it than to actually finish off the already-dead dragon.
With Sandy Claws dead, the Elves were free, and while their attitude towards their freedom was maybe roughly split between fear of the unknown (and us?) and relief, one of the more welcoming craftsmen pointed out a buried cache where Sandy kept her most treasured items from the hoard, and in addition to searching her inner lair, we left that mesa weighed down with much reward.
Of course gold is nothing compared to the prize of righteousness and a rescued innocent, and after an uneventful trip back through the mountains (though of course slower with the lack of mounts), we returned to the foothills on the other side and sent Delimbiyra on the way back to her family. Our band has still not been granted the tribal friendship necessary to actually visit their village, so I cannot tell you, reader, what that reunion was like, but I’m sure it was a glad one.
Finally, then, we arrived back at Aiwan after nearly a full week away, one of our longest adventures to date. We returned to the Tasty Pig richer in almost every way, and piled into the common room to share with the townsfolk all the wondrous sights we had seen, and to drink heavily to Ducky’s continued existence, long may The Great Bard of Aiwan live!