The smell of roasting pork wafted through the salty air. Smoke mingled with laughter in the gathering dusk, as the village’s taverna was filled. Agatha, the matron of the establishment bustled from oven to oven, checking on skewers of meat and boiling cauldrons of herbs and onion. Tonight was no festival night, but the village was sure eating like one.
Most of the attention in town was focused on five strangers sitting and telling tales of the recent storm to the west and the battle that the Rangers had staged there with some great lizard from the darklands.
“It reared up its head, near eighty feet high, it did,” growled one of them, snarling for added effect at the children sitting closest. “Terrible creature with scales blacker than night, and great curved horns. Its breath smelled of spoiled vinegar and bile. Claws like scythes ripped through wood and stone.”
“Indeed, but the Rangers were already out on the rafts made from their wagons and stolen from the night-stalking orcs. Right about the time the beast breathed is foul blast of gas and bile, that’s when the fire struck some of the Rangers.”
“Fire? It wasn’t fire. It was the very lightning of Xiphios.”
“Lightning my hide, it was a death pall from the halls of the damned.”
“To the crows with you, I know I saw lightning.”
“I swear the fire didn’t come until the beast was wounded and they tasted its blood.”
“No, the fire came before the blood, stop interrupting.”
There was a general murmur of discontent as the five stopped to bicker about the details. Agatha set out another plate of kebabs with a scoop of warm yogurt. Hardly had she turned her back to fetch the wine before the first half were snatched away.
“So there were these five Rangers, didn’t know their names at the time, but found out who they were after from the rest of them. There was one that definitely looked the part, a beast of a woman with an axe and a bow to match, hair all wild and fiercer than any beast I’ve seen with my own eyes. She went by Rika, and from what we saw she’s cursed with the beastblood of the north, but turns it as a weapon against the beasts.”
“Then there was the half-orc, a dour fellow with speed and power surely surpassing even his night-stalker heritage. He must have a bone to pick with someone, because he fights as if every swing of his fist or axe will tear the very soul out of you. No one is quite sure where he came from, save that he calls himself Skuthropos, he’s been a gladiator, and he is apparently the son of a wolf and a battleaxe.”
“Don’t forget the sorcerer, that Koboros the Shifting. I heard tell he sought out the Rangers because he was a criminal somewhere near Pittacae. He’s a slippery one, not much known, but you’ll hear what we saw him do in the battle soon enough. One thing I do know is that he must have access to some dark magic based on what happened in the battle.”
“There was the noble one, the Pittacan woman Artesia. She bent a bow like Sylvae herself bends the arch of the moon, and her arrows could have held back an army. Some say she’s the exiled daughter or granddaughter of one of the kings, while others say she’s the descendant of Nicanor Agiadis, the Butcher of Eurysthenes. Whoever she is, there’s a lineage in that blood.”
“The last one you’ll not believe me even if I tell you. But the Rangers apparently keep talking animals as advisors and warriors. See there was an owl there, goes by Bubocrates. The creature casts magic with a glance, vanishes and reappears in midair, and twists its flesh into a mimicry of the Calopene form. He’s clever, too, if a bit naïve. See…”
“Battle!” came the shout from the crowd. “Tell us the battle!”
“Right, right, fine,” said the oldest of the five, draining a cup of wine. “So these five, the Beastwoman, the Wolfson, the Shifter, the Moonbow, and the Watcher, they all are aflame with something not of this world. They smelled like sulfur and blood, and they moved like they had never moved before.”
“The Beastwoman was the first to strike. She ran at the creature launching a few arrows before jumping at its still standing torso. She leapt up as a woman, and landed as a great golden lioness, jaws flashing and claws tearing. When the dragon got a hold of her, it threw her back toward the swamp, but the lion shifted again, keeping its head but regaining a human’s arms and legs, but all covered in golden fur.”
“That was when the Watcher took wing at the beast, locking eyes with it and hypnotizing it for long enough for the others to move. The dragon broke the gaze and swung its tail at the owl, but he became like a man falling through the air, slipping beneath the tail, and then transformed back into an owl.”
“It was that Artesia that struck next with her arrows, see. She moved from place to place so fast you’d swear she was just appearing, loosing two or three arrows at a time from some special quiver, and between the arrows, the big half-orc loosed one last tree trunk from his tree-thrower, and then ran at the beast over the surface of the water, kicking up mud and muck behind him.”
“All this while, that sorcerer was underwater, right? No one saw what he was doing, but he came up from below and shouted at the beast with icy breath that pushed it back long enough for the skin on his body to start shifting again. The owl drew the dragon’s attention while the sorcerer grew to a size that almost rivaled the beast, sprouting wings and claws of his own.”
“That’s when the tears opened in the sky, right? Or was that after?”
“That’s after this next bit.”
“See, the five of them Rangers were wounding the beast a little bit, but they weren’t bringing it down. The sorcerer-dragon locked claws with it, teeth gnashing and tails slashing, while Rika as a lion again leapt on the beast, clawing and biting at the gaps in the scales left by the arrows and tree trunks. Skuthropos was at the beast too. He had ripped out a pair of scales and was using them to stab into the creature’s flesh to climb its flanks and slash at its wings.”
“Then the great black dragon overpowered the sorcerer and threw him like a rag doll crashing into the swamp. The great scaly hide of the sorcerer-dragon crashed right next to our camp, and as he stood I saw some kind of gem on his neck let out a light, and as he flew back at the dragon, his wings left rips in the sky, and terrible, twisted forms fell out before the resealed themselves. I can’t really describe them, but they followed the charging dragon and struck at the black horror. But they didn’t just strike the foe, as the Rangers were now fighting these… things from places unknown.”
“It was in this chaos that the dragon killed Rika, she was thrown into the air somehow and swallowed whole. But Skuthropos, who had pried off one of the dragon’s horns, stabbed it in the gut and earned himself a thrashing from the beast’s tail that sent him flying into the woods. Artesia had been far off thus far, but a gout of breath from the beast caught a part of her and it fought its way closer and closer to where she was.”
“No one’s quite sure if it was the owl or the sorcerer that finished the dragon, though. See, the owl caught its eye again with some magical energy, and right about then the sorcerer-dragon dug its claws into their foe’s flanks and lifted it into the sky, flying east as they clawed and bit at each other. We only heard the crashing of trees in the distance.”
“So… what happened to the four that survived?”
“They were still in some kind of frenzy. The half-orc was so taken with some kind of rage that he started fighting the swamp itself, and left a cleft in the earth that started draining the waters. Artesia rained fury on any orcs still standing, then took off running toward the city. Skuthropos turned farther north. The sorcerer returned to the battle field as a Vishkanya and cast some kind of spell over the area, as the waters turned bloody and the bones of the dead floated to the surface without flesh, then he also ran off somewhere to the north. All of them left fire in their wake.”
There was a moment of silence among the listeners as Agatha picked up a plate of cleaned spits.
“You didn’t say anything about the blood.”
“One of you said something about them all tasting its blood.”
“Well there’s no doubt Rika and Koboros did. Skuthropos surely got a mouthful of it while he was climbing. I heard that Artesia, when the beast got near, took two arrows and struck it under a leg, and drank the fresh stream as it poured over her. Bubocrates was weaving around it as it was bleeding every which way. So sure, I think they all drank its blood.”
“Dragon blood will make you crazy though, won’t it?”
“I heard it makes you super strong, like Aedikles.”
“No, the gods hate the dragons right? It would mean they’ve joined the forest!”
The argument continued as the night drew on, each piece of the story quested and retold, details slightly different every time. Agatha only cared that she was making a month’s income in one night at this rate.
She stepped into the far corner of the tavern where her only guest who wasn’t eating and drinking with joy at the story and set down a plate of food. The hooded figure nodded and handed her the coins. The elf picked up his bread and honeyed his wine, listening closely without seeming to pay attention to the account of the battle. After all, there are few who could best a dragon in battle. Such persons are worthy of keeping a close eye on.