They were on the right track, Ghost thought firmly as she and her fellow Fire Wasps made their way along the trail that let to Muldoon’s farm. All of the pieces seemed to fit. Dragons were territorial, and Valryke had gone out of his way to seek out Tristan to warn them to leave him alone, which made her wonder why. There had been no reports of dragon attacks in the vicinity of Muldoon’s farm after all. But then Valryke was no ordinary predator. Dragons were clever, and Ghost’s instincts told her that a clever predator would probably do its hunting and ravaging away from its lair so as not to give away its location.
As they traveled through the woods, Ghost and Tilly looked for dragon sign, venturing off the trail and checking along each side. And they did find dragon sign. Branches high up in trees broken off where something big had passed, always pointing in the same direction. Half-eaten carcasses of various animals with a tell-tale greenish tinge they recognized from their previous travels through the area. In addition, Tristan and Kidalis sensed they were traveling along a fey ley line which according to their knowledge tended to attract dragons. The news only added to Ghost’s feeling that her initial suspicion was correct.
They reached Muldoon’s farm in the late afternoon. They ended up staying the night after Muldoon had badgered and cajoled them into helping him rebuild some stys for his pigs in return for sharing his supper and roof with them. The beans and bacon, along with bread and honey, were a welcome break from their usual fare, and though the former mace-master could tell them little, he was able to point them in the direction he’d sometimes seen the dragon flying overhead. As they prepared to continue their search the next morning, the Fire Wasps held a brief council to discuss how best to find the dragon.
“We’re dealing with a reasonably intelligent creature,” the young shifter mused, her brow furrowed in thought. “It’s probably going to take extra precautions to hide its lair. What I’m thinking is that when we don’t find any sign of him, that is when we might be closest to his lair.”
Tristan ventured that he’d read that dragons like to have lairs that allowed them to lord over their territory. Which led Kidalis to recall that there were in fact some ruins in the vicinity, the remains of a keep built long ago by a bandit named Rantheus who had fancied himself a king, an excellent place for a dragon to store a hoard. It seemed a good place to start.
As they headed towards the keep, Ghost and Tilly kept up their search along the way for dragon sign, and both noticed that the amount of sign they found was dwindling the closer they drew to the keep, seeming to confirm Ghost’s thoughts on Valryke wanting to conceal his presence in the area to keep his lair undetected.
Finally they came to a break in the trees, beyond which lay the ruins of a surprisingly large keep. Remnants of siege weapons that had apparently once battered at its walls lay where they’d been abandoned, and though broken, large sections of those walls still remained standing in places, a quiet hollow wind blowing through the ruins’ empty corridors. But even in decay, it was an impressive structure.
“For a bandit,” Ghost observed, looking over the vast stretches of wall still standing, “this Rantheus did pretty well.”
“Well, he was a petty king, as they say,” Kidalis said with a shrug.
Ghost couldn’t help snickering, glancing sideways at the young noble with a cheeky grin. “Aren’t they all?”
The Fire Wasps spread out, checking the grounds around the ruin, where they found recent dragon tracks at a couple of the larger breaches in the walls. “This looks promising,” Ghost said eagerly, kneeling down to examine the claw prints more closely.
In addition to the dragon tracks, the ground around the breaches was littered with the remains of a number of bodies, mostly humans with a scattering of other races, all half eaten and all foul with greenish-tinged poison and advanced putrescence.
“He’s very wasteful,” Ghost observed with a frown, her flatish nose crinkling at the putrid stench.
“Well,” Kidalis offered, recalling what he’d read about dragons’ lairs, “he probably left them out here as a warning.”
“Dead humans will certainly keep a lot of animals away,” Tilly agreed, prodding a nearby corpse with the butt of his sharrash. “Especially poisoned dead humans.”
“And other humans,” Tristan added, covering his nose as he backed away from the unpleasant find.
“It’s just that,” Ghost went on, her frown deepening as she continued her thought, “with all the other stuff we’ve found, he always just takes the best bits and leaves the rest behind.” Clearly the shifter girl was bothered by this.
“If he was hungry,” Tristan mused, looking around at the half-eaten remains, “or really, really greedy – he’d have taken everything.”
“You don’t have to be greedy,” Ghost said, shaking her head firmly at the half-elf’s thought. “It just, like, amongst my people, we were always very… efficient. I think that’s the word.” She gestured at the body-littered grounds around them. “You don’t waste stuff. You make use of it. You can make stuff out of the hides, out of the bones, the hooves.” At her companions appalled reactions – she was talking about corpses and not animal carcasses after all – her jaw set stubbornly. “You don’t waste stuff.”
As they ventured through the breach and into the ruins, there was no sight or sound of the dragon, only the soft desolate sound of the wind blowing through the stone fragments of the keep’s remains. But they had no sooner gotten into the keep’s first chamber than suddenly the quiet was broken by the clatter of rocks and rubble being disturbed behind them. When they turned to look, they were greeted by the sight of the corpse remains rising to their feet and coming after them, a hungry and menacing look in what was left of their faces.
“Ghouls,” Eustace muttered, gripping his scythe firmly as he drew it over his head into the ready position. “Don’t let them near you.”
“See?” Ghost said, feeling vindicated as she quickly drew her swords. “This is what happens when you leave stuff around!”
Battle was quickly joined as the ghouls fell upon them. It was hard enough trying to avoid their tainted claws and fearsome bites, but one ghoul in particular was nastier than all the rest, emitting a stench so foul it could stagger anyone who got a whiff of it right in their tracks. The Fire Wasps quickly concentrated their attacks on that one. The battle was pitched and Kidalis in particular was getting the brunt of the ghouls attack, but Ghost and her companions were able to hold their own, Tristan’s eldritch blasts and Eustace’s radiant sun attacks seeming to do exceptional damage to the undead horrors. But it was Tilly’s sharrash that finally took down the nastiest one – a ghast, in fact – with crushing surge attack that caused the unnatural abomination to explode, splattering everyone near it in necrotic gore. And as it always seemed to happen, Ghost was closer than anyone, getting the biggest share of the foul spray, though Kidalis was even less lucky, getting hit in the most vulnerable gaps in his armor. But with the ghast gone, the tide of battle turned decided in the Fire Wasps’ favor, even with Tilly being taken down temporarilty by a particularly vicious attack. But even with the battle going there way, Ghost worried in the back of her mind about how long it was taking, wondering if Valryke would should up while they were still fighting off the ghouls. Luck seemed to be with them though, and when Eustace and Ghost took down the last ghoul with a lance of faith and a twin strike between them, the ruins were finally quiet again.
“Someone should’ve buried that thing,” Ghost panted, staring down that the foul creature’s scattered remains. “Somebody probably did!”
“Ghost,” Kidalis ventured, pointing at her, “you’ve got a little, uhm…”
Ghost blinked in puzzlement, then suddenly realized she was covered head to foot in ghast ick, the smell burning in her nose. The young shifter shuddered, looked forelornly towards Eustace, managing a small whimpering plea for a fastidiousness ritual even though she knew they couldn’t take the time, not with the chance of Valryke suddenly showing up. “Why can’t we fight any clean creatures?” she whined, doing her best to clean herself off with her swords.
(more to come)