Pressing on into the den of the little creatures seen in the dark, the Rangers found themselves in an odd, worked cavern filled with trapped plates and rigged treasures. Koboros was the first to find this when his boot landed on a pressure plate, and a quartet of arrows slashed across his torso. With no means of communication due to their language barrier, Rika, Skuthropos, and Artesia left no quarter or hesitation in cutting down the creatures, which responded with spear and sling in kind. Room after room, the party advanced. Bubocrates scouted enough to find a room filled to the brim with piles of scrap wood: planks from boats, fence posts, even large branches. Still the Rangers pressed on, axe, fist, and arrow felling the small scaled ones in single blows.
Yet, there was an intelligence behind the incomprehensible eyes; one attempted to speak unsuccessfully with Artesia, another was seen by Skuthropos to be scrawling a note in a scrap of leather, and they had adorned the walls with maps of places known and unknown. Eventually, some barricaded themselves behind a door with cages, and a group heard only distantly by Koboros to be rhythmically stomping and drumming could have potentially survived. One mercy was afforded the lair’s denizens; the note-taker was struck with restraint, likely to awaken in a few minutes time.
Coming to an ornate door, the plain stone girded with metal and a brazen disc with spiral emblem, Rika forced her way in with the others not far behind. Within, another of the small lizard-people with rat-like, or perhaps dog-like faces stepped out, this one dressed in a patchwork robe and hood carrying a staff of elm-wood. Hanging from the branching staff were four bird skulls; a hawk, an owl, a hoopoe, and a nightingale. After attempting to infiltrate the Rika’s mind with dreadful magic, the Ranger’s attention swiftly shifted as another figure emerged from the dark.
While smaller than the bears in the giant’s cave met under a fortnight ago, the black-scaled dragon was a more threatening visage to behold. It was young, no scars on its scales and yellow-gold horns unnotched by battle, as their later investigation would reveal. Yet it fought with ferocity. Its appearance was followed by a volley of acid that drenched Rika and Skuthropos, though when the acid touched the half-orc, the red veins around his plague-scar softly glowed and supernatural resilience let him emerge the better of the two hit by the gout. The creature bellowed a warning; “Leave now with only scars, and you may keep your lives!” In moments, Skuthropos had been bitten around the shoulder, and his left flank and right thigh shredded by talons. Rika, the magic around her mind driving her to rage, found within herself fury that could not be contained in a human body, and was suddenly, magically, and violently changed into the form of a fierce lioness, who swiftly separated the lizard-mage’s heart from his chest.
With joined fury of the death-defying half-orc, untamed lionness, and the rain of arrows from Artesia finding what purchase they could in the scaly hide, all guided by Bubocrates’s guiding eyes as Koboros kept a secret and skulking rear-guard, the dragon was wounded severely. As it was nearly collapsing to a knee, the creature hissed a simple warning, “Strike me down, and my father’s wrath will avenge me.” Another arrow found its chest, forcing its neck to rear up in pain and it summoned acid to its throat. Rika’s teeth clamped on that throat, blocking the acid and snapping the dragon’s neck.
Yet their triumph was short lived — you see, Skuthropos would be the first to see the oversize tunnel worn smooth by liquid, a liquid that had the bitter smell of acid, large enough to carry a creature many times the size of the dragon they had just fought. Guided by her scent as Skuthropos saw this and was healed by Bubocrates, Rika found a door that held a stranger to the lands of Calopius. His name, they would learn, was Harmanjohd, a traveler from a land east even of Zorwa seeking to trade and discover if there was civilization beyond his maps. Let free by Artesia, the simian explorer was eager to find escape, though a room of cowering lizard-rat creatures was given a withering stare of several moments.
When Koboros felt the tremors of earth that could be the return of the promised avenging father, he hurried his companions out of the cave, some still wounded and wearied. In the flooded valley that stretched between the cavern once thought merely to be home to cockatrice and the farm of their hosts, the earth itself seemed to shake as a pealing roar echoed from below. In their hearts, the Rangers knew they slaying of the dragon had been discovered, the head of the young beast on Skuthropos’s back as a trophy.
At Koboros’s urging, the Ranger company gathered what they needed and turned their attention toward returning to Last Beacon Outpost. The awakened wrath of this dragon was beyond their skills, they feared, and the best they could do was to evacuate farmers along the way. Forcing themselves to march ten, even twelve hours a day, driving themselves to exhaustion, the group would see the familiar smoketrails rising from the Outpost. There would need to be explanation, and almost certainly they would need to prepare to depart again almost immediately, but for at least a few of those present, the sight of the Outpost was a momentary comfort of seeing the only home they had known in years.