Tumbotasareh--Willodale in the language of Men--is a happy, peaceful community in the forestlands of the Grey Hills. We Elves had come from Faerie, looking for a place to settle, as the Cu-Gahbleane had ravaged our townships there. Perhaps, thought some, we could find contentment on the other side of the Gate. Dame Bona Fortuna was smiling on us, for we had traveled only a week before we found our new home. The nearby Men-towns were friendly enough, if a bit curious--and cautious--of our obvious racial differences. They told us of Mount Knobskot and suggested we live there. ("Mount" in name only. Only because it is the highest point for miles around, and the locals don't know what a -real- mountain look like!)
Knobskot is a beautiful place. From its height--such as it is--one can see as far north as Mirkshaw, and distant Chimeron in the west. The wildlife is varied and plentiful. All of the usual woodland creatures, as well as the occasional deer, and if one is very lucky, a bear or wolf may cross your path. And each season works its own special magic. The smells of a new Spring fortell of Summers glorious days, warm nights and cooling breezes. Autumn's spectacular colors give way to the chilling nights and snows of Winter. After an ice storm, the trees glitter like diamonds.
The nearest town is Ramadan. Only half a day's ride away, it is close enough for easy trade, yet far enough for each town to have large amounts of cropland that yielded great harvests each year. Ramadan was run by a Council of Seven, with the eldest member presiding. In truth the Seven were sought out--usually singly--to settle minor disputes among people and for advice on personal matters. The Council met as a whole on rare occasions and only the most important of the town's affairs.
So the years passed. The towns traded freely, and on certain days, Faires would be held. The larges was the Ramadan Harvest Festival. It drew merchants from the farthest Hill-towns, who gave generously for the Ramadan steeds and our own Elven smith-work. Thus our people prospered and out town grew. Tumbotasareh grew much more slowly, however, for though we Elves live for centuries, our seed is not so strong as our Human neighbors. So when our village numbered a few thousand, Radaman grew to a sprawling populace of over fifteen thousand.
This attracted bands of goblins, as well as the less moral of Humans, to attack the trade-caravans for whatever they could find. When this happened, both communities would send out teams of Hunters to track down the raiders. We Elves have no love for killing, but know the necessity of a quick and merciless justice.
Such was life in the Grey Hills. Elves and Humans, living together and learning from each other, creating friendships and familial bonds that lasted for generations.
Then the Dragon came.
Chapter the Second: A Solstice Storm
It came out of the west, just as dawn raised her golden head, an immense blue Dragon of incredible fury. It appeared on the day of the Summer Solstice, with the fields full of the promise of another great reaping. The hill-towns were just waking to the thoughts eager for the feasting and the tournaments that were to occur on the longest day of the year.
The Dragon had other plans.
In an awesome display of power, the Dragon called lightning down from the heavens, setting crops ablaze. Sheep and cattle scattered in all directions, and the beast was assured of a steady diet for the next fortnight. The horses could be heard screaming in the barns, as they fought to break free from their stalls. For the lucky ones, their hearts burst with the exertion. Others suffered for hours before they could be put down. Almost the entire Radaman stock was destroyed that day. Grain silos exploded with the force of the storm. All of the grain that would have otherwise fed our communities through the long winter was blown to the four winds.
The region's defenders were not idle. Once the cry went out, each town's garrison of soldiers went out to meet the menace. Alas, all was in vain. As the dragon was always in flight, all the warriors could do was shoot arrows and throw spears, which bounced off the beast's armored belly. Mages, too, tried their skills, to no avail. The monster shrugged off the strongest pells like so many paper daggers.
For a week, the Ravaging continued. None of the towns in the Grey Hills were spared. Kitan lost fully half of its populace. Nacto's famed glass works was struck by a particularly large old of lightning, sending sand, kilns and finished glass everywhere. The shards ended more than a few lives. The Heriz tobacco crop was burned to the last leaf. The weaving mills of Connill were destroyed when the Dragon used its mighty tail as a weapon to knock down the buildings. Closer to home, Ramadan was nearly wiped out. No structure was spared. It seemed a miracle that any building was left standing at all. The town was razed by fires ignited by bolts of lightning and a thousand souls perished in the blaze. Several dozen more people--children mostly--were crushed when the Dragon used its tail on a Temple. The massive oaken beams snapped like twigs, sending great stone blocks on top of those huddling and praying for solace and comfort.
The people of Draynam were witness--and victim--to a change in the beast's tactics. Almost as if it were daring the warriors, it would swoop down to ground level, and grab a soldier in each of the fore-claws, and then either chew at the man or drop him from a dizzying height. It appeared that the whole population was erased from the earth.
The Elves were not spared from the carnage. Indeed, the beast seemed to sense our extra-planar difference and took special care to make our lives miserable. Our crops were either burned or buffeted down by the mighty wing-beats. Some of the smaller buildings were also felled in this manner. The larger ones were smashed down by the tail or ripped up from their foundations. Of the hundred Elven Hunters sent out to do battle, seven returned. Two of those died from their wounds.
Not knowing the Dragon's Truename--ah, the magicks we might have wrought with -that- knowledge-- we gave him one from the Elven tongue: Gurthlhun. The "Blue Death".
And we despaired.
After Gurthlhun had laid waste to the Grey Hills, he held court, after a fashion. In truth, he merely wished to put forth the rules by which we would be allowed to live under his ever-watchful crimson eye.
His demands were simple enough, though harsh. Every month, for five years, each ranger was to provide ten head of cattle or sheep to feed the Dragon. So as not to deplete any given herd, he would feed from two herds this month, two the next, and so on throughout his Hunting Time.
To be honest, we were quite surprised. One does not expect such behavior from a Dragon. Tales abound of such creatures, of how they completely devastate the area around their lairs, and utterly annihilate any living thing within their domain.
As if he were reading our thoughts, the monster explained that living that way led to nothing but a hungry and poor Dragon. By letting us live as had been--more or less-- he had a steady supply of food and treasure for his hoard. And before we asked, he explained that he never ate virgins (well, almost never). Again the reason was simple: Dragons live for millennia. Why kill off the child-bearers and let the means of his food and treasure supply die out in a matter of decades?
We could only respect his pragmatism. But we were confused and curious about the "Hunting Time" he mentioned. We asked--VERY humbly--about this, so that we might better understand our new "lord".
Gurthlhun explained that during his life, for five years, he is ever wakeful, scouring the region for loot to plunder and add to his hoard-- "Hunting". This Hunt can also refer to the time he spends feeding, and on occasion, looking for a mate.
After the Hunt come the Time of Slumber. This was five years of uninterrupted sleep, to restore the strength used during his Hunt. But lest we get any
ideas, he said, he was completely aware of anything that happened in his lair, and would instantly awaken to any unnatural disturbance.
He added that there would be a band of goblins entering the region in the next few days, laden with the Dragon's accumulated wealth. They would also be his "enforcers" who would ensure the delivery of the tithes, and to guard his lair during the Sleep. We were ordered to build a garrison to be used as their barracks.
As promised, the goblins came less than a week later, and under the Taskmaster's eye a garrison was built, including a rather impressive armory. During the construction, the "enforcers" used the Grand Feasting Hall, one of the few standing--albeit barely--structures of any appreciable size.
So the garrison was built, the hoard delivered, and a new life was begun in the Grey Hills. New buildings were constructed over the ruins of the old, and eventually, people adjusted to life under the shadow of Gurthlhun.
And we endured.
The years passed slowly, wearily. The people of the Hill-towns no longer lived, we merely existed. True to his word, Gurthlhun Hunted ceaselessly five years at a time, rotating his way through the region, and feeding off the ranchers' stock when necessary. The tithes were sent without too much trouble, as we had seen the Dragon's power. Nothing we had could hope to oppose him. So we took the lead from the Dragon and were practical: pay the tithes and live a long life.
Every so often, however, a man would decide to stand up to against the goblins when they came around for the collection. First, the offender was beaten nearly to death for his actions. If that did not persuade him into paying, his family would be tortured. After that, death to the family and
the home burned.
Several attempts were also made on the Dragon's lair. None of the would-be Dragon slayers ever came back alive. Indeed, the monster would take the heads and displayed them outside the entrance upon stakes, for all to see and tremble. Gurthlhun also found from where the party came, and would
remind them of a Dragon's might. This would discourage any others who had ideas of gaining a Dragon's wealth. For a while, until another fool would be convinced of his superior might and cunning.
For most, however, tithes were paid, and sheep and cattle given, just to survive another year. We endured the beatings by the goblin enforcers, and their taunting and teasing in town. They were particularly fond of the Humans' mead, and many taverns had to be virtually rebuilt after a long, goblin-infested night.
The Dragon's Sleep was no better. Though the Hill-folk could not see the beast winging overhead every day, the goblins would step up their level of brutality and depravity. It was as if they were afraid of Gurthlhun's punishment if they went too far with us. As the Dragon Slept; however, that threat was removed. And if any dared to stand against the goblins, he was sure to get a knife scar across his face for his trouble.
For half a century this went on: The tithes, the beatings, and the occasional homestead burnings. We thought there would be no end. The Hill-folk were in a constant state of despair. We tried to plead to the Gods for aid but to no avail. The more wealthy--and foolish--enlisted the help of mercenaries. Still, the Dragon lived and mercs and merchants perished.
Then one day a man rode into town, richly dressed. Well, it might have once been fine wear but had since fallen into a sorry, road-worn state. His armor was rusted in places, and the silks, while not in tatters, had definitely seen better care. When the goblin watch demanded his name, he did not answer. They came at him then, and his warrior's instincts took over. At his side was a long sheath, and when he lifted the hilt, out came a foot of broken steel. After the goblins had their laugh, they bade him a mocking, "Good day, LORD," and sent him on his way.
He rode into Radaman, and found lodgings at the Inn. When cleaned of the road's dust, he cut a rather impressive figure. The men of the town asked all sorts of questions: name, where he was from, and the like. He said his name was Ruhl Blackmane, and he was from.....all over, he finally answered. A traveler who sought only an inner peace seemingly denied him. He fought in many battles, against fiend and goblin, and was a feared and fearsome fighter--so he said, anyway. But though his stature was tall, he seemed somehow...broken, beaten. And yet, more than one man remarked on the fire in his blue eyes.
Then Ruhl asked the locals of the life they lead. And they told him of the Ravaging of the Grey Hills and the past fifty years of torment and torture. At this, the fire gleamed a little more brightly in his eyes, and he vowed that he would rid the land of the terror that was Gurthlhun.
The town-folk scoffed, but he assured him of his intent. He WOULD kill the beast, but it would take time. When he went to his room, the gathered people noticed a straighter back, a more confident step. And they began to something unheard-of in five decades.
They began to hope.
The next day, as if he had heard the challenge, Gurthlhun, our overlord and tyrant, flew overhead. Ruhl Blackmane, for all his travels, had never seen such a sight. The terrible grace and beauty of a Dragon on the wing filled him with fear and awe. Yet the warrior steeled his resolve to end the life of the beast.
To this end, he visited the armorer, Rannellian Braulin, to see to the repair of his pitted armor. Braulin said that there was nothing to be done, far easier to create a whole new suit. The armorer asked why Blackmane needed the armor, as it was an unusual request with the enforcers around. When the warrior stated his intent, Braulin assured Ruhl that he would do his best, but due to the necessary secrecy involved, it would take at least two years to assemble. Blackmane understood and told the smith that time was not really an issue, as the task at hand would be years in the planning.
After bidding farewell to Braulin, Blackmane went to the Elven weapon smith, Balkorai Mithinrill. From the smith he commissioned a sword of a type he had seen in Tang-Hua. Called a katana, it was a long, curved blade of incredible strength. That strength, said Blackmane, came from how the smiths of the East folded the steel two hundred times during the crafting of each blade. Mithinrill was amazed at this, and told Ruhl that he would have to practice on smaller blades to learn best the way to proceed. Again, Blackmane was unsurprised and unconcerned, and assured the smith to take as long as necessary.
When he had satisfied his needs of arms and armor, Blackmane set out to train his body. He needed to regain strength and skill for the coming hunt.
The next day, he set out to the homesteads of farmers and herders, offering help to any who needed it. He would stay on for a few months, doing whatever hard labor that needed to be done. Then he would move on, a few gold pieces richer and a little stronger for his efforts.
Sometimes Ruhl would take several townsmen to the woods, away from the goblins' prying eyes, to engage in mock battles. Using padded staves, the men would attack Blackmane, at first in one-on-one fights. Then, as Ruhl hones long-unused warrior's skills, he would fight two men at once. Finally, three could attack him, and expect to find themselves on the ground, defeated.
Every so often, Blackmane would visit the armorer to examine the fit of another piece of his new armor. As promised, the new suit was becoming the finest he had ever seen. A layer of steel plates covered one of padded leather, which was designed to absorb the weight of the steel. The armor promised the ability to withstand any battle.
Mithinrill, too, proved more than capable; even his earliest efforts at folding the steel yielded knives far stronger than any in the Grey Hills. Indeed, the smith wore two of these on his belt, his favorite work blades. After more than a year of experimentation, he felt he was ready to create the weapon Blackmane had commissioned.
Another three years passed. Gurthlhun had gone back to his lair a year before. Blackmane kept up his conditioning, and his periodic visits to the armorer and weaponsmith.
When he was finally presented with his new sword, he was in awe of the smith's prowess. Balkorai Mithinrill had proven himself a true artisan of his craft. And despite the long years on this plane, he proved he had a bit of the old magic about him still. For the steel shone a bright red along its length, while the edge was tainted a brilliant gleaming gold. A brass disc etched with the figure of a sinuous Dragon formed the crosspiece. The handle's scales were made from rosewood polished to a deep shine, and wrapped in red-and-gold brocade. Blackmane could only smile in admiration at the respect Mithinrill had shown to the warrior's hereditary colors. The balance was exquisite, easily used by either one or two hands. The edge was so keen it could slice through a three-inch sapling in one stroke. The magnificent weapon was scabbarded in a rosewood sheath fitted with bras trim.
Then came the day when the warrior could do no more planning, no more training. He knew he had only one more task to accomplish before the hunt. That was to prepare his spirit. To do this, he felt, he had to spend a one-night vigil in the woods surrounding Mount Knobskot. Packed with only a bedroll, an axe, a piece of flint and a flask of water, he set out.
After hours of walking through the woods, he found his spot on a rock outcropping near the summit. The he laid out his bedroll and set up a place to make a fire. Backtracking for a while, he found the remains of a huge oak tree that had been struck by lightning, perhaps a victim of Gurthlhun's anger. Using the axe to chop the wood into kindling, he brought two bundles back to his vigil site. Then he struck the flint with the back of the axe to get the fire started. When the fire was good and strong, Ruhl Blackmane knelt on the bedroll and began his vigil to keep the fire lit for the duration of the night.
An ancient oak felled by lightning
Flint and steel to start the fire
Alone, awake throughout the night
Visions dance in vigil's pyre
After Ruhl Blackmane returned from his vision-filled vigil, he arrived in Radaman to gather those who would aid him in his quest. He had chosen them over the course of the past few years for their abilities in fighting, tracking, and magic. They had been told to meet and stay in town while Ruhl completed his ritual.
Porter St Cyr was a huge man, with the massive build and ruddy complexion that testified to his years at the forge. The huge double-axe he wore on his back bespoke of his strength and ferocity in battle. Marc de la Croix too was a fighter, lithe and agile with his long sword and dagger. He was also well-read, and would prove a wonderful companion with his story-telling.
The last warrior was an Elf named Draugar Megilmor. One of the few Elven Hunters to survive Gurthlhu's initial attack half a century before, his experience would be more valuable to the party than the black bastard sword on his hip. Khaalen Akhali was an expert tracker and huntress. She was a black woman from the east who knew the ways and wiles of every creature in the Grey Hills. She would be the one to guide them to the Dragon's lair.
Magic, too, would be needed on the journey, and Ruhl chose well from those who could wield it. Alyn and Ananda Neysa were a rare sight: twin Elven maids who each were amongst the most powerful in her area of ability. Alyn was a Healer without equal in the region, with an incredible knowledge of herbal lore, augmented by her magical healing. Ananda was a Mage with a vast array of destructive spells. The last man in the group was Pen Ylayn, who would provide the more subtle magic’s of divination and deception.
When the group was assembled at the tavern, Blackmane told them that they would set out at first light the next morning. This way they were more likely to avoid the goblins on watch, would most assuredly be sleeping off the revelry of the night before. Since there was plenty of time in the day, they all agreed to set off for the various markets and get any last-minute provisions needed, including a horse and buckboard to carry it all. That night, they met back at the tavern where de la Croix regaled the hall with a fanciful land and the adventures to be found there.
The next dawn came, and the band slipped past the watch with ridiculous ease. Even if the party had set out with full pomp and fanfare, the goblins' snoring would have drowned out the noise. The path to the lair was well known, as Gurthlhun was confident enough of his ability to punish any trespassers. (Who but the very foolish would dare to enter a Dragon's lair without leave?) Akhali planned a march or four days at a comfortable pace. She also said that they would see no towns, and few homesteads, the better to keep the quest a secret.
So it was that four days later, without any sign of goblins or their human henchmen, the band found itself in the valley where Gurthlhun made his home. Around this hillock, the huntress said, would be the cave's entrance, and within, the Dragon in his slumber.
When they made their way to the cave mouth, they were greeted with the sight of the heads and skulls of all who thought themselves Dragonslayers. Here the warriors stopped to put on the armor they had stowed in the wagon. Letting the horse free to roam, they lit their torches and entered the caverns.
The questers followed the Dragon-sized tunnel downward into the mountain. Occasionally they met a junction, and Ylayn would scry for the route to the beast's Sleeping chamber. The further they went, the stronger the stench of Gurthlhun became. There were sure the monster was awake by now. Though sleeping, a Dragon would know of any intruders in his lair. He was certain to be searching the catacombs for them, eager for the chance to squash them like bugs. Yet they pressed on, the need to end the tyrant's life outweighing any fear they felt.
The party had moved through the tunnels for some time when they found the first treasure vault. Gems and jewelry, coffers of coins and all manner of art and artifacts litter the house-sized chamber. The group was in awe of the wealth contained there. As covetous as they were, however, they left it untouched. If they were successful in this quest, they would reap the reward later; if not, they'd not need it.
Further on they went, and encountered more vaults like the first. In one they found a huge armory of weapons used by long-dead adventurers: swords and axes, halberds and great bows of all types and descriptions. One weapon puzzled them all. It vaguely resembling a crossbow yet, with the bow removed and in its place a long iron tube with a flared end. Blackmane recognized the writing on the stock as Tang-Huanese, yet could not read it all. Ylayn tried a spell, but all he could scry was one word: "Arkwi-busi". It meant nothing to the band.
They also found a pair of wonderful mithril-tipped lances. One was hafted with rosewood polished to a deep maroon, the other a six-foot shaft of frostwood. The heads were identical, marking them as coming from the same forge. Elven script flowed on the mithril bands of each weapon. The twins told the rest that the rosewood-handled pike was named "Lambrerunya"--"Flametongue" to the Humans.
The other was called "Aeglos"--"Snowpoint". Ylayn cast a spell and divined that there were powerful magicks in the weapons. Each had a special ability involving fire and ice, and he had learned the phrases to trigger the effects. The warriors decided to bring the lances along, with Lamberunya going to de la Croix and Aeglos to Megilmor. Then they resumed their march to battle.
While the Dragon lurked....
Onward they went through the twisting tunnels. The scent of Gurthlhun was so thick they could barely breathe. Suddenly, Akhali returned from her point position and reported that she had heard the shuffling of the beast; he was nearby and surly knew where the party was.
Backtracking to a narrowing in the cavern, they took their places for ambush. The tunnel was big enough for the Dragon to move through on his way to the treasure chambers and outside, yet this area left him little room to use his great bulk to any advantage. And they were far enough underground that he couldn't cast the lightning bolt spells he favored, as there wasn't enough fresh, humid air to make them effective.
Alyn stayed far away from the ambush area, her Healing arts would be of little use during the melee. Her twin Ananda stood on a rock shelf ten feet above the floor of the passage. Ruhl stood directly beneath her and received a spell of displacement from Pehn, which would make the warrior appear five feet from his true location. The Human wizard then cast invisibility spells on Marc and Draugar, who then found places on either side of the tunnel. Ylayn then moved to the center of the passage to stand beside Khaalen, who had her bow in hand, arrow nocked and ready. The last fighter, Porter, found an outcropping fifteen feet above the others, almost directly across and a little higher than Ananda. Weapons and spells at the ready, they waited.
The wait was not long. They all heard the beast long before he came into view. Were the circumstances not so grim, they might have been amused at the Dragon's grumblings of the insolence of these pests who would disturb his Slumber.
When he finally reached the group, he was confused. He scented eight intruders, yet saw only six, and one of those flickered oddly. Obviously, two were invisible, and one was displaced, powerful magicks. This was a rare and challenging party. They might last more than ten minutes, he mused.
At the Dragon's momentary confusion, the band struck. Khaalen Akhali loosed her arrow and struck the inside of a nostril. It was a rather unusual and even embarrassing target, perhaps, but one chosen to enrage the beast beyond clear thought. To further confuse the wyrm, Pehn Ylayn used a simple light spell aimed mere inches in front of the left eye. Thus blinded on that side, the Dragon could only see clearly to his right.
As the beast roared in his rage, Ananda Neysa threw her most potent fireball down his gullet, while Draugar Megilmor and Marc de la Croix rammed their newfound lances into the massive forelegs. Porter St Cyr sprang from his perch, huge arms swinging an equally huge battle-axe. Landing on the back of Gurthlhun's neck, he started using his axe like a lumberjack, chipping at the strong, thick scales, eager for the soft flesh within. Ruhl Blackmane, too, strove to use his new katana to loosen the scales on the underside of the neck. And while the sword did shear away scales with every stroke, the neck was too far overhead to suffer any significant damage.
It was time for Gurthlhun to retaliate. Despite taking a considerable amount of damage from the fireball, he still had plenty of life and will to crush these vermin. He lashed out sideways with each foreleg to swat away those who had struck with fire and ice, then thrashed his neck to dislodge the one atop him. Then snapping his head forward almost too quickly to follow, the great maw snatched the huntress' bow from her--along with half of her right arm. Howling with agony, Akhali collapsed and stared at the stump as her lifeblood left her, spurting in time with her failing heartbeat.
Both sides retreated a bit then, to take stock of the situation. Alyn rushed to Khaalen's side, but it was too late. Megilmor and de la Croix were dazed and bruised, but largely unhurt. Of St Cyr, there was no sign; the party feared the worst. The others, miraculously, were completely unharmed.
Gurthlhun, for his part, looked on the group with wonder. These....pests... these vermin, had actually managed to -hurt- him! Never before had he encountered such skill, such courage, and truly blessed good fortune. He should have been able to crush them in a twinkling. Yet, all but two still stood. Amazing. Now, however, was the time to end it all.