Chapter 102: Enter the Dragon
Ember expected Firkraag to attack as soon as the group got outside, but he did not wait that long. When the group exited the maze of corridors and entered the upper main chamber, the dragon was there, waiting for them.
"Leaving so soon?" he asked, his voice echoing from the rock walls. He rose out of the giant pit, propelled upwards by slowly flapping his wings, which were large enough to almost scrape the walls with every beat. Eyeing the group challengingly, he landed on the edge of the pit, letting his claws dig into the rock as he did so, and when Ember and her companions immediately withdrew into the room behind them, out of his reach, his taunts of cowardice followed them.
"This is it, then," Sir Cadril murmured. "Taar, do you see the exit over there?"
"And what are you going to do?"
"Stay close to the walls, and wh-when the dragon's not looking at me, I go that way."
"Good lad. Now, let's get ready for this, shall we?"
In final preparation, Ember, Anomen and Edwin cast every protective spell they could think of on the group; spells of haste, damage absorption, fire protection, strength, and various blessings that would enhance both defense and attack. Sir Cadril contributed by warding them all from fear, and Yoshimo rounded off the proceedings by opening a vial of icedust and liberally sprinkling its contents on everyone. The enchanted ice particles would, until they evaporated, protect everything they touched from fire damage; the vials were their best chance of success, and Ember could only hope they had enough of them to last the battle. Or, that the battle will last long enough for us to use them.
It was time.
With a bloodcurdling roar, Minsc charged out of the room, straight towards the dragon; Ember drew a deep breath and followed him, along with Anomen and Sir Cadril. The dragon came into their view; glimmers of magic energy coursed over Firkraag's skin as he covered himself with enchantments, then, as they closed on him, he reared up. Massive wings swept forward like waves of flesh and bone, and Ember's world seemed to explode with white pain. She let her body roll with the force of impact as the wing knocked her to the ground, groped around for her scimitar - she'd let go of it - and got back up on her feet just in time to see Edwin's spells breach some of the dragon's magical protections. Mazzy and Yoshimo stood beside the wizard, peppering the dragon's head with enchanted ice arrows in an attempt to hit the vulnerable eyes; most of their arrows did no more than bounce off his scales with a brittle clattering sound.
The dragon roared, sending a river of fire towards his foes. Searing, choking heat enveloped them, but did not burn them; many of the ice crystals that covered Ember's skin, armour, and weapon melted away, but she was unharmed. Thanking fate for the icedust, she resumed her charge at the dragon, joining Minsc in attacking the wing joint. This time, she got close enough to actually attack, but to her dismay, her scimitar did nothing; the scales on the wing, small as they were, were far too tough for her to break. Anger flashed through her; for a moment, she found herself missing her cursed Sharran sword and its cold blade. The dragon flinched away from the attack, much like a person would flinch away from an angry bee, then buffeted them with his wing, sending both her and Minsc tumbling across the cavern floor.
"Icedust? Clever," Firkraag rumbled. "But how much do you have?"
Groggily shaking her head, Ember turned to see the dragon looking at her with pure malice. He inhaled deeply; he was going to breathe fire again! Acutely aware of her icedust coating, which had dwindled to only a few specks, she fumbled for the vial that should have hung from her belt, but her fingers found only shattered glass.
A cloud of ice crystals rained down on her, and in the instant before flames engulfed them, she caught a glimpse of Anomen, holding an emptied icedust vial in his hand. The fire flowed harmlessly around her.
"Close," Anomen gasped.
She nodded mutely. They all still lived, but how long would that last? They had not even scratched the dragon yet! Her one consolation was seeing Taar, who was almost at the exit; he, at least, might still survive this.
"Arvoreen, guide us!"
Mazzy's voice rang throughout the cavern, strong and clear and somehow larger than any sound a halfling body should be able to produce; the words seemed to fill Ember's heart, raising her spirits and restoring her courage.
"Scatter!" Mazzy shouted; her voice was back to normal, and her face glowed with astonishment and joy. The others did as she commanded and spread out, approaching the dragon from all four sides while Edwin worked his magic and Mazzy and Yoshimo fired their arrows. By now, some of the arrows had struck true; one was lodged in Firkraag's left eye socket, and few more studded the softer tissues inside his mouth.
No longer able to face all his attackers at once, Firkraag lashed out at random with wings, claws, and tail. A swipe of the right wing almost struck Ember across her torso, but she managed to mostly ward it off with her shield; her shield arm was jolted a bit, and for a moment, it went numb with pain. She shrugged off the pain, tightened her grip on the shield, and let herself draw upon her own fire. Heat, almost as searing as the dragon's, coursed through her as she drew strength and sturdiness from her divine essence, and when she attacked the wing again, the force behind her blade was more than enough to tear a large gash in the wing membrane. Firkraag raised his wings and started to turn towards her, unwittingly giving Minsc an opening; with a shout of glee, he rushed forward and slashed directly across the old scar on the dragon's upper torso, sending scales flying and cutting deep into the flesh itself. Growling with anger or pain, the dragon struck Minsc with his claws, knocking the giant ranger across the cavern floor. Unconscious and bleeding from several deep gashes, his body only came to a halt when it struck a large stalagmite.
The dragon moved to follow Minsc.
"Halt, fiend!" Sir Cadril cried, stepping in between Minsc and the dragon. Firkraag swatted at the paladin, but Sir Cadril managed to deflect the massive claws with his greatsword, then struck the dragon's forelimbs on his counterattack. Taking advantage of the dragon's distraction, Ember hurried to where Minsc lay and started chanting healing prayers over him; his chest and face were badly injured, and his armour was beyond salvaging. While she worked, the dragon roared fire again; tendrils of flame licked at herself and Minsc, but did nothing beyond evaporating some more of the icedust, and a quick look around told Ember that all Firkraag's roar had accomplished was reducing the arrows in the roof of his mouth to charred stumps. Relieved, she took a vial from Minsc's belt and scattered a fresh layer of icedust over herself and her fallen friend, and once she was certain he'd survive, she got up and rejoined the battle. By now, almost everyone was focusing on the scar Minsc had reopened; Mazzy and Yoshimo aimed their ice arrows at the wound, freezing flesh and blood where they struck, and Edwin sent clusters of magic missiles at it, dislodging more scales and further opening the injury.
Sir Cadril still held Firkraag's attention when Anomen landed a sturdy blow near the main joint of the left wing. The bone snapped with an audible crack, and the wing drooped to the ground. The dragon immediately struck out at Anomen, but in doing so, he inadvertantly exposed the opened scar to Sir Cadril. The paladin raised his greatsword and stabbed it deep into the wound.
Hot, black blood gushed out around the blade. The dragon screamed and reared up on his hind legs. A fiery roar struck the cavern ceiling, scorching the stalactites; several spears of rock broke off in the intense heat and fell to the ground, some falling upon the wounded dragon, while others merely smashed against the rock floor.
Breathing heavily, the dragon fell back down on all fours. "Well... played..." he wheezed, looking at Ember. "Your father... so proud." He did not move as Sir Cadril stepped forward and wrenched his sword from the wound.
"Justice shall be swift and final!" Sir Cadril cried, and stabbed again, embedding his sword to the hilt. The dragon shuddered once, then fell forward, the light gone from his yellow eyes.
Firkraag was dead.
After a night of celebration, shared stories, and much-needed rest, the group returned to the lair the following morning, accompanied by Garren and Taar. As they made their way down to the lower reaches, Garren told them what he knew about the place; it was, indeed, originally the lair of a red dragon. "That dragon was driven away in my childhood, by a group of Harpers, actually. When Firkraag chose to move into the old lair, I though he was just being flamboyant. But now, knowing what you have told me... I find myself wondering if it was not his home all along," Garren said thoughtfully.
In the far end of the lower chamber, in a series of rooms carved in the rock wall, they found Firkraag's hoard. The dragon, it would appear, had been fond of jewelry and decorative items; instead of gold coins, they found golden plates, golden water ewers, statuettes of pure gold, ruby encrusted keepsake boxes, piles of jewelry, and several elegant weapons with gold inlaid hilts. One of the rooms had been dressed as an exquisitely garish apartment, complete with gold-embroidered silk sheets on a golden bed, golden toiletries on a dresser of polished oak brushed with gold leaf, and a gold-embossed shelf that held scrolls of magic. A golden desk stood in the center of the room; in its top drawer, they found the deed to the Windspear hills.
"This befalls you, I believe," Ember said, and handed the deed to Garren. He clutched the deed to his chest, beaming with joy.
"My heart is free, and I have you to thank," Garren said. "Remind me, how much do you need to rescue your friend?"
"We lack six thousand five hundred out of twenty thousand in gold," Edwin said distractedly; he was preoccupied with scrutinizing the scroll shelf.
"Come with me," Garren said, and took Ember to one of the rooms that held jewelry. There, he filled a bag with diamonds, ruby rings, and strings of pearls. "This should cover it," he said with a smile as he gave the bag to Ember.
She stared at him in amazement. "This... Garren, this is worth thirty, maybe even fourty thousand!"
"I expect it is."
"I-I thank you, but I can't accept this much; you'll need the money to rebuild!"
"Firkraag's utensils should be enough for that," he grinned. "It was you and your friends that rid my lands of that creature; you are more than entitled to a fair share of his wealth. In fact, I am the one who should be thanking you, for letting me keep so much of it."
"You have no idea what this means for me," she told Garren, her voice half choked with emotion.
"Oh, but I do," he said, glancing through a doorway at Taar. "I most certainly do."
Over the course of the day, several treasures were uncovered. Minsc found what he called a good new sword for Sir Cadril; upon receiving it, the stunned paladin proclaimed it to be Carsomyr, a legendary paladin blade. Other finds included a perfect suit of dwarf-made plate mail which fit Mazzy like a glove, multiple valuable spell scrolls, and an enchanted cloak. One of the greatest treasures was not in the rooms, but scattered on the ground outside them: fire dragon scales. Hundreds of them littered the cavern floor; tough and durable, they could be made into an excellent suit of armour, and Athkatla held at least one smith capable of doing so.
"Our friend Minsc will finally have armour worthy of his stature," Yoshimo said with satisfaction as he, Ember, and Anomen finished filling a sack with dragon scales. "We also have the fee for Imoen, and our honour is restored. A most fruitful day!"
"I suppose so," Ember said, "but the price was a bit too steep for my tastes."
Yoshimo nodded in understanding. He laced the sack shut, hoisted it over his shoulder, and carried it to the cavern exit.
"Were you and Sir Ajantis close?" Anomen asked quietly.
"Ajantis," she sighed. "We were friends, but... we did not part on the best terms. I was... it was before I became a druid, and I'd become a rather unpleasant person by the time his summons came."
"I must say I find that hard to believe."
She smiled wistfully at him. "Ajantis was quite troubled by my behaviour by the time he left us, you know. He told me he barely recognized me anymore." She fell silent for a moment. "He helped me see that I needed to change. And now I can never let him know that I did."
"I am most sorry, my lady," Anomen said. "If I may ask... was he aware that you were willing to amend your ways?"
"Yes. I told him I'd try the morning he left us."
"If Sir Ajantis also knew the strength of your will - as I suspect he did - I have no doubt that he believed you would accomplish that task. My lady, do not believe that he thought ill of you; you would wrong both yourself and his memory in doing so."
"I... I'll try," she said. "Thank you, Anomen."
"You are most welcome, my lady." He picked up a small, glittering scale and turned it over in his hands, letting the red and golden surfaces catch the light. "I have found that there is much comfort in sharing the matters that pain us, and it gladdens me to be of service to you as you have been to me. Perhaps..." He glanced at her, and his cheeks reddened slightly. "Perhaps one day... we will speak of other things?"
Other things... An odd but pleasant warmth seemed to fill her as she looked into his warm brown eyes; distantly, it occured to her that she'd never really noticed their colour before.
"I think I would like that," she said.