Fifth Part: The Hermit’s Cottage
Shortly after midday (or late afternoon if trapped by the faerie storyteller), you reach the edge of the forest, A few hundred yards on the river forks in two. A low cottage with a blue wisp of smoke curling from its squat stone chimney stands on the river bank, a woodpile beside it and a small boat beyond.
GM: Erik Iceheart waits inside the cottage for the party. He and Caedmon arrived hours ago, murdered the trapper who dwelt here, and hid his body in the woodpile. They left the woods some way to the west. Their footprints, now partially obscured by fresh snow, will be found only if the party specifically scouts around. Caedmon has gone on to Talionis’ lair alone, leaving Erik to deal with the pursuers.
You are some fifty paces from the cottage when a man wrapped in thick furs emerges from it. Approaching you, he introduces himself as Jorundr the trapper and gruffly warns you that if you mean to rob him he will put up a good fight. He pushes away his cloak, revealing his scabbarded greatsword.
‘We intend you no harm, good fellow,’ says Osric. ‘We are the king’s men, on a mission most holy for our liege. We must cross the river here, and I ask only that you lend us your boat.’
Jorundr grumbles, but eventually accedes. ‘The boat only holds three,’ he points out, ‘I’ll row the last two across so I can bring the boat back afterwards.’
GM: Erik’s plan is to wait until the last two are about to cross, and then attack them. After putting them down, he will then take cover in the cottage to avoid any arrows the others may shoot at him from the far bank. After waiting for the party to leave, he will track them and pick them off. If the party decide not to cross the river here, for some reason, he’ll misdirect them and follow the latter tactic. If at any stage Erik thinks he is in serious personal danger, he’ll either flee or bargain for his life with information. He is very canny, remember and will demand a holy oath from the party that he goes free and unharmed if he keeps his side of the bargain.
The party’s map shows that the dragon’s lair is at the head of one of the two branches of the river, but which branch? A close look will reveal that the western branch is faster-flowing and slightly warmer. This is because it flows through the heat of the lair at its source. The eastern branch will be found to be frozen over half a mile upstream.
The Final Part: Into the Dragon’s Lair
It is now late on the night of the winter solstice. Stars glitter in the sky like hoarfrost. You have followed the river into the foothills. The river is considerably warmer here, melting the ice and snow on its banks. Trudging up a sleep slope, you see where the river gushes from a fissure. After stooping to pass through, you light torches to reveal a winding passage through which the river flows. You are on a rock ledge barely wide enough for two to walk abreast. The other wall, some 20m away, holds a still narrower ledge on that side of the river.
GM: The ledge is slippery. Traversing it takes four rounds and each character must check each round to see if he slips. Treat this exactly like a climb with a Difficulty Factor of 10. Anyone who slips will get one final chance to roll reflexes or less on 1d20 to grab the edge before sliding into the river. If they were nearer the wall, they also bowl anyone alongside them into the water as well. Up to three characters can grab at a falling companion, needing to roll reflexes or less on 1d20 to get a good grip. If at least two people can grab him, the character is saved otherwise he is swept away and drowns.
After what seems like hours of tortuously traversing the ledge, you round a bend and enter a cavern through which the river flows. There is more space now, at least six metres between the wall and the water, and you may quickly reorganise your battle order before advancing. It is much warmer, and you throw off your heavy furs.
The river issues from another passage about twelve metres ahead. Beside this is a pile of fallen rocks— and something else, something gleaming like ivory. The bony corpses of several long dead warriors. Their bones are very white: cobwebs veil their eyeless sockets; tattered flesh hangs from their limbs; their weapons and scraps of armour gleam bright and clean. You feel your skin crawl as the skeletons rise from the dust and move out to block your path.
As you prepare for combat, a slight form resting on an oak staff emerges from the shadows of the passage ahead. He brushes some dust from his fingers. There are only two pouches at his belt now. He gives you a last look of mingled amusement and regret, and turns back into the darkness.
GM: Caedmon has used his Reanimate the Dead spell on some fighters slain by Talionis over the years. The number of zombies is one more than the number of the party, up to a maximum of eight. Treat them as zombies even though they really don’t have that much flesh on them now – a more accurate term in this culture would be draugar. Given the scarcity of magic, the characters will never have encountered the undead outside of mead-hall stories, so get them each to make a morale check (Dragon Warriors, page 122) against an effective ATTACK of 15. A character who fails won’t flee, but will be rooted to the spot (able to defend but not attack) for 1-6 rounds.
For a moment you survey with horror the grisly forms of your fallen foes, then remember the urgency of your mission and press on. After another 10m or so, the tunnel opens into a chamber. The river flows from a vivid blue pool over which hangs a soft mist. Deep below its clear waters, you can make out the bones of old dragons. Another tunnel going deeper into the mountain leads from this chamber...
GM: This is the Pool of the Wyrm’s Ancestors from which the king drank. One sip will give the drinker fleeting images of the future—nothing very specific, and not of the immediate future. A second sip at any time has a 50% chance of causing insanity (Dragon Warriors, p. 124); and any further sips guarantee insanity. The water loses this magical property, and its colour (why the river isn’t blue) five seconds after leaving the pool, so it is of no use if taken away for later use.
The party will have no time to investigate the pool now. If they help Talionis against Caedmon, she will offer them each a sip later, and warn them that they must never take more than one sip. The vision each character has is up to the GM. It should be something that will be of use to the character. For example, ‘You see robbers lurking in some bushes, about to waylay a lone rider. It is spring, judging by the flowers and leaves. The rider comes closer and you recognize yourself!’ The character is thus forewarned of an ambush.
There is a stillness in the air. The passage winds on another 18m and then seems to end abruptly, but shadows dancing across the glistening rocks make it clear that the tunnel does not end here but snakes sharply to the left. Turning the corner, you find your way blocked by a wall of flame. From beyond it you hear the roar of a great beast and a human voice speaking in an unknown tongue.
GM: Hengist’s advice was correct—anyone of the True Faith, as well as pagans who live an essentially virtuous and honourable life, can walk through the flames unharmed. Characters such as demonologists, darkness elementalists, or others who have performed wantonly evil acts, will take 4d6 damage on walking through the flames—but if their intention is to aid Talionis, the damage taken is the minimum possible (ie, 4 points). They may attempt to leap the flames to avoid the damage (roll reflexes or less on 5d6, or be damaged anyway).
You step from the fire into a huge cavern. The dragon’s golden egg is on the far side, cloaked by protective flame. Caedmon and Talionis are eighteen metres away, squaring off for their final battle. Neither has noticed you. Talionis rears up, spreading her great wings to the cavern walls. Caedmon’s flesh is coated with a bizarre ashen powder, as though he had already been burned by the dragon, but coruscating tongues of eldritch white flame lick around him too, unlike any dragon-fire.
Raising his hand, he shouts a spell just as Talionis unleashes her fiery breath. White lightning arcs over red-gold flames. Talionis shudders as the wizard’s Deathlight bolt sears her; but it seems that Caedmon must be defeated as for several seconds he is engulfed in the dragon’s awesome inferno.
However, the flame dies and the wizard stands barely harmed; safe in his coating of Amianthus Dust. He smiles at the damage his bolt has done, and raises his staff. Then, as though some sixth sense has warned him, he turns and flashes a cobalt glare at you...
GM: The party’s arrival means some quick rethinking for Caedmon. His bolt wounded the dragon severely, so he should be able to finish her off with the power in his Ring of Red Ruin. But he must manoeuvre so as to catch the party with his bolts as well; or else try to slay Talionis quickly and reach the egg before the party can stop him.
He has not long before his Amianthus Dust and Ring of the Burning Halo subside, and he’ll need 1 combat round with the Dust still working, to get through the egg’s protective flame. He is out of dragon dust, but has his Rings and his 1st- and 2nd-level spells. Remember that Talionis is protecting her egg. She realises that the party want to help her, but that will not prevent her from breathing on Caedmon if they are in the firing line.
If the party and Talionis defeat Caedmon, she will invite them to spend the solstice celebration with her. Her fledgeling hatches at midnight and takes an immediate liking to his soul-brother Osric. (Dragons in this world spend eighteen years in the egg listening to the voices of their ancestors before hatching. The young dragon, Protervus, is almost adult, therefore.) Talionis herself keeps calling Osric by his father’s name—it seems to her such a short time since she saw her old friend!
You may decide to let PCs choose an item from her treaure hoard. Talionis will remember them in the future, and may be able to provide boons or ancient wisdom, becoming a powerful if reclusive patron and even instigator of future adventures.
Okay, that's my sign-off for the holidays. Whether you adhere to the True Faith, the Old Gods or bow to no supernatural forces of any kind, enjoy the undoubted magic of the intercalary days and I'll see you on the other side. Yo ho ho.