Good Luck, Bad Luck

Chris Van Deelen

            Sweat trickled down Ronnath’s spine as he and his two companions traversed the narrow tunnel. They had been exploring the caves for several days now, meticulously mapping each passage, every cavern, even the man-made excavations they had stumbled across. So far, with the exception of finding the trussed up humans in the cages and the strange chanting, the exploration had been rather dull.

            The Elf believed that things were about to change. The temperature had been steadily increasing over the past several hundred feet, and far ahead his eyes could make out a dim, red-tinged glow. He reached up and wiped the sweat from his face and flicked the droplets off into the darkness behind him.

            Gravel crunched beneath the soles of his leather boots and he was almost certain that he could feel the heat radiating from the ground. They must be approaching a magma pocket or lava flow, something that in his many years of exploration and training he had only heard of, never actually witnessed firsthand.

            It was a sight he was eager to see.

            “Slow down ye bloody long-legged pointy-eared bumbuddies…” the Dwarf, a surely warrior named Dannis Stoneheart grumped from the rear. He was short, nearly two feet shorter than Thorn or Ronnath, and had to take an extra step for every two the elves took. Ronnath grimaced, wanting to speed up their pace, not slow it down, but he had to respect the dwarf… after all he was a capable fighter and had proven his worth and loyalty several times since the venture had begun.

            Ronnath was about to reply when his keen senses detected two things almost at once. His nose wrinkled at the stench of what he was certain to be sulfur, mingled with over-heated stone and smoke, and he would swear that he had heard a deep-throated growl. Holding up his hand, he waved for his two companions to stop and both complied instantly and they brought up their weapons.

            Still in the lead, Ronnath crouched low and hugged the wall as he moved forward. His imagination had not been running wild after all – he could feel the heat radiating from the stone, almost hot enough to burn, but not quite there yet. He stopped and listened and there it was again – a deep throated growl and the clink of coin on coin was unmistakably.

            When he glanced over his shoulder at his companions, he could see from the look on their faces that they had heard the sound as well. “What do ye think it is?” He hissed quietly. One never whispered, as that simple sound travelled far more than just speaking in a low murmur.

            Dannis wrinkled his nose and held it tightly, frowning. “Methinks it might be a dragon,” he looked past Ronnath to the reddish glow, which was growing brighter with each passing step. “This deep in the stone, could be a Red, maybe one of the lesser known dragon types.”

            “Great,” Thorn mumbled. “A dragon. Just what we be needin’ to run into.”

            Ronnath considered it and shrugged. “Want me to scout ahead? I’ll find out what we be facin’.  If it is a dragon, we could leave and take our findin’ back to the king, let his men come in and deal with the creature.”

            “And if it is a dragon, do we just leave the treasure that it will have hoarded to the king and his folk?” Dannis grumped. “We be do all the leg-work and he gets the gold. Me be thinkin’ that is not exactly a good deal.”

            “Stay put,” Ronnath said quietly. He knew that Thorn could move with nary a sound, but as it happened Ronnath was better, although if they were in a forest and not below ground, he would be nothing more than a shade in the night. Down here he felt like a drunken human in a tavern. Still, he continued to crouch as he crept forward, keeping his compound bow ready just in case he needed to fire a couple of arrows.

            The closer he came to the reddish glow, the hotter it grew. Sure enough, the stone along the wall did become too hot to touch without protection and if it got any worse, his boots would begin to smoulder. The stench of molten rock and sulfur was almost overpowering by now and he wanted to sneeze, but he managed to stifle it. Sweat was pouring off his body in rivulets by now and he was beginning to feel a powerful thirst coming on, a sure-fire sign that he was starting to become dehydrated.

            Finally he reached the source of the glow – the tunnel he had been following opened to a large natural cavern, suffused with a red light. The source of the light, as well as the smell and the heat were pools of magma and a river of lava that flowed through the center of the room. Several natural stone bridges crossed the lava-flow at un-even intervals and he could see a ledge that began twenty yards from where he stood and circled the room, about sixty or seventy feet off the ground until it came to a set of double doors crafted of some sort of metal he did not readily recognize.

            He pulled back into the tunnel, knowing that his outline could probably be seen by anyone inside the room and he continued to scan, looking for the source of the growling he had heard minutes before. As his eyes swept the cavern, they happened to alight upon a pile of glittering yellow. He felt his heart skip a beat as he realized that he was looking at more gold than he had ever imagined. The pile had to be five feet in height at its peak and must have covered about twenty feet or more at its base. There had to be hundreds of thousands of piece in the pile, more gold than could be found in the entire kingdom.

            Then movement caught his eyes and he was forced to look away. Off to the side, maybe thirty feet, a pool of magma bubbled and popped. As he watched a long, sinuous emerged from the molten rock and as it arched into the air, a reptilian head appeared. Sure enough, it was a dragon, but not a red as had been suggested. This was a beast unlike any he had ever seen before. The beast was about ten feet from the tip of its nose to where the tail began. It was black, with veins of a red-gold covering its body, looking very much like rivulets of lava. The wings were easily twice the size of its body, and the head was long and tapered, with two large backwards-pointing horns. The creatures eyes blazed golden, filled with intelligence and malevolence.

            As it pulled its body out of the magma, it spread its wings and with a powerful thrust, leapt in the smoke and steam-filled air, letting out a bellow that shook the very stone he stood upon.

            Ronnath cursed silently, even as he admired the primal creature. It was a Magma Dragon, a true dragon, and just as deadly as any of the great Wyrms that had been encountered, but unlike the chromatic or metallic dragons, this creature was an elemental beast.

            Just because it was elemental did not make it any less dangerous. In fact, from what he knew of the creatures, they were exceptionally temperamental and prone to violence. Some would say that they were insane, but that could be debated.

            As it took to the air, droplets of molten rock flew in every direction, some splattering the ground dangerously close to where he hid. He knew it had to be young, and he thanked the gods above for that small favor.  Anything larger would be pure suicide to attempt to fight. Then again he had no real intention of engaging the beast, even with his two companions at his back.

He watched as the beast swooped around the room, dipping and weaving, running its wing tips through the molten lava and magma as it flew. He could see that it was searching, having been disturbed from its slumber, and he realized that it might be his very presence that had alerted the dragon.

            It landed with cat-like grace only about thirty feet from where he crouched and let out another roar. Was that a challenge? He had no idea, as he did not speak draconic. Maybe one of his companions might know what was being said, but it was nothing more than a bestial scream to him. It lumbered around on all fours, sniffing the air and once it looked in his direction. The magma dragon’s eyes narrowed dangerously and the nostrils flared as it took several steps closer to the tunnel entrance.

            Ronnath felt his bowels loosen as it came within five feet of his hiding place, and it even stuck its head into the tunnel and took in a deep breath. Even the creature’s exhalation was hotter than a cooking fire and he felt the hairs on the back of his neck begin to curl under the intense heat. Sweat poured from his face and pooled in his collar, but he refused to give into the discomfort. The beast withdrew its head and it lumbered back into the cavern, seemingly satisfied, and then it slipped into the nearest of the pools of magma.

            Moving with infinite slowness, Ronnath backed away from the cavern entrance and retreated down the tunnel, feeling the air grow cooler with each yard he put between himself and the beast. Finally he returned to Dannis and Thorn, both of whom were looking more than a little apprehensive. He told them what he saw in the room.

            “Was that beastie what I be thinkin’ it be?” Dannis asked.

            Thorn handed Ronnath a water-skin. The elf drained it in several long pulls and handed the empty skin back to his companion. He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and nodded. “Aye, we’re dealing with a dragon, a magma dragon to be exact. The creature is young though but I still don’t want to mess with it.”

            Thorn glanced nervously down the tunnel towards the glowing haze. “We’ve mapped out every inch of the complex so far, and that’s the only place we haven’t been to yet.”

            Ronnath blinked in near incomprehension. “Hold on a moment,” he held up his hand. “I don’t know about you but we be not getting’ paid enough to deal with a dragon, even if it’s a young one. Undead I can handle, but an overgrown reptile that likes to live in lava? Count me out.”

            Dannis held up a stubby hand and waved dismissively. “We’re not getting paid, remember?”

            That much was true, Ronnath realized with a start. Why the hell had he ever agreed to this venture was beyond him. “All the more reason we shouldn’t be botherin’,” he quipped and crossed his arms under his chest. At least the temperature had dropped and he was no longer sweating profusely.

            “How ‘bout we sneaky sneak past the beastie then?” Dannis offered, running a hand through his thick beard. Despite the heat, the Dwarf looked fresh and unflustered, which was more than could be said for the two Elves.

            Both Thorn and Ronnath looked at the Dwarf with varying degrees of incredulity on their faces. “Because,” Ronnath began a second later, “you sound like someone dropped a bag of cooking pots and pans down the stairs when you walk!”

            Dannis laughed at the imagery. “Fine, fine. You two are quiet and can move like the shades themselves,” he pointed out. “Go and see if the yonder door can be opened. If ye can open it, I’ll make a run for it.”

            For some reason Ronnath just could not keep his mouth closed. “On those stubby legs? You’ll not get halfway to the door before hot and bothered gobbles you up as a mid-day snack!”

            The Dwarf patted the hammer he carried, which was nearly as large as he was, but then again that did not say much. Dannis could wield it with proficiency that Ronnath had rarely seen. “Let the overstuffed Gecko try,” he growled.

            “That settles it then,” Thorn agreed. “We’ll see if we can unlock the door and then you’ll make a run for it, if you alert the creature to your presence.”

            Ronnath shook his head in disbelief. He could not believe that they were going to try this insane plan. He wanted to turn his back on the two of them and make his way out of the complex. They could return to the king and present him with the maps they had made and let him deal with the dragon.

            Despite the gold they were giving up.

            What was the point of more gold than he thought existed in the kingdom if it meant his life? He suddenly felt ashamed then… he was a warrior, one who fought against the tides of darkness and protected those who could not protect themselves. He was damned good with a bow, and pretty handy with the staff and sword.

            And the dragon was small, comparatively speaking.

            Slowly he nodded his head. “Alright, we’ll try and get to the door and we’ll provide cover if it comes down to it,” he told his companions. And knowing us, it will come down to it. He added silently.

            Taking the lead, Ronnath led the small group back down the tunnel. He kept to the shadows as best he could as he peered into the chamber. The creature had not left its pool of magma, although was it his imagination, or had the smoke and steam grown heavier during his short absence? That might work out to their advantage if that was the case.

            Using hand signals, he indicated the wall and the narrow ledge that led to the doors. Thorn nodded and began to creep alongside the cavern wall, staying low and using the un-even floor as best he could. There were small mounds where the magma had cooled into strange-looking shapes, some that appeared to be possibly humanoid, and they made for excellent cover.

            When he looked over at Dannis, he almost groaned aloud. The Dwarf was staring at the mound of gold coins, seemingly unguarded and ripe for the picking. He would have sworn that the Dwarf was drooling at the sight of all the treasure. After all, he was a Dwarf and gold, like the underground, was in his blood. Reaching out, Ronnath smacked the dwarf on the back of his head and indicated the wall and ledge.

            If looks could kill, Ronnath would be a pile of smouldering ash right then and there, but with great reluctance, the Dwarf nodded and indicated he understood. Ronnath still had a bad feeling about what was to transpire, but he had to put faith into the Dwarf to follow the plan they had agreed upon, so he waited until Thorn was halfway to the wall before he followed suit.

            The heat grew in intensity to the point it was uncomfortable to even breathe, let alone exert oneself, but he pushed aside his discomfort. He glanced up and saw Thorn was about a quarter of the way up the wall, having difficulty with the climb, and decided that he would not bother waiting.

            Before grabbing the first handhold, he glanced back at the room. Dannis was still at the cavern entrance, watching, but his eyes kept flicking back towards the pile of treasure. Ronnath shook his head, annoyed but pleased to see that they had not disturbed the dragon.

            Yet.

            Thankfully it was child’s play to ascend the wall to the ledge, and he passed Thorn on the way up and was still scanning the pools of magma, waiting for the dragon to rear its head. Thorn gave him a scathing look as he clamored over the lip and sat down beside him, his face drenched in sweat. In the heat of the chamber, his sweat was turning into steam, rising lazily in the shimmering air to disappear like a ghost before the sun’s first rays.

            “You couldn’t have waited?” He grumped, looking at the door a few hundred feet away.

            “Why?” Ronnath replied, looking honestly perplexed. “What if the dragon had emerged while we were both climbing? Someone needed to be able to provide at least a little cover…”

            It was clear that Thorn did not like the answer, but the other Elf could not refute the logic. He glanced back towards the entrance where Dannis stood waiting, impatience visible on the Dwarf’s face even at this distance. Thorn pulled his backpack off and rummaged through it until he found a coil of silk rope. Together he and Ronnath worked to secure the rope and lower it, making it all that easier for their height-challenged companion to scale the wall, and hopefully not make too much noise as he was doing so.

            Once they were ready, Ronnath motioned with his hand for the Dannis to approach. The Dwarf nodded in reply and then began to move along the wall, keeping low as he moved. Thankfully the hissing and bubbling coming from the magma hid the sound of his movements, but even to Ronnath’s ears the Dwarf sounded like a lumbering Ogre with a bad tooth. He covered his eyes with his hand and shook his head. “We need to get some magic that will silence him,” he grumbled.

            “If we could get some of that gold,” Thorn’s eyes gleamed, not just from the heat, but from the uncounted gold lying only a short distance away. “We could buy some magic to do just that.”

            “I don’t be wantin’ to fight that thrice-cursed dragon,” Ronnath rumbled quietly. As they had been waiting, he drew his compound bow and notched an arrow. He had not pulled it yet, but was ready to pull and lose all at once, just in case.

            The Dwarf made it to the base of the wall and was carefully securing the rope to his waist and a moment later, Ronnath had to put his weapon on the ground. Even though he did not look it, he was by far the strongest member of the trio, able to out-lift even the stubby Dannis. He could have hauled Dannis up on his own, but with the two of them working in tandem, they brought the Dwarf all the way up to the ledge a lot faster.

            When he clamored over the lip, his boot hit the very edge and suddenly the Dwarf yelped in fright as the ledge gave way and he fell. Dannis dropped about ten feet before Ronnath and Thorn were able to halt his sudden and unexpected descent. Ronnath inwardly groaned, knowing there was no way in hell that the dragon could not have heard that.

            Sure enough, from a pool of magma about fifty feet away, the head of the beast suddenly poked up from the molten rock and metal. It slowly rose out of the pool, magma dripping and coursing down its scales like water as it pulled its body out of the mire. It growled low and menacingly as it peered at the three interlopers into its domain.

            Thorn began to growl right back, bowing low and almost scraping against the hot stone of the ledge. He gestured towards his two companions and then at the pile of gold and then waited.

            The Magma dragon growled again and then began to do something that Ronnath had never heard or thought he would hear. It was laughing, the sound unmistakeable even to his untrained ears. “What is going on?”

            “She claims we are thieves, out to steal her gold. I tried to tell her that we were just passing through and that we did not even come close to her treasure. We only want to pass through the doors and be on our way.”

            So Thorn could speak draconic after all, Ronnath mused. “And her reply?” He was answered a second later as the Dragon drew in a deep breath and spat a geyser of molten lava at them.

            Ronnath’s eyes went wide and he had only a split second to react as he dodged to the side. Thorn rolled out of the way letting go of the silk rope that held Dannis aloft. The Dwarf let out a very unmanly squeak as he began to fall again, only to have his descent halted when the rope caught on the lip of the ledge.

            Even though he managed to dodge, some of the magma splashed him and he felt literal white-hot jolts of agony rip through his arms and back as the magma burned through his clothing as if it was not even there. The pain was nearly unbearable, but he dug deep into his wellspring of will and pushed it aside. The fact that he had magic that allowed him to heal rapidly would prevent him from being scarred by the molten rock.

            Thorn managed to avoid being splashed, and he came to his feet, already speaking in the magical tongue that allowed him to channel energy into a potent spell. A pair of blue-white bolts of arcane energy burst from his fingers and flew unerringly towards the dragon, who by this time had pulled her body out of the magma and was alighting, taking to the smoke and steam-filled air with ease. The arcane energy struck the dragon and she roared in pain, but it seemed to be more of an annoyance than any real threat.

            Ronnath longed to grab his bow and place a few arrows into the beast’s body, preferably into the gaping mouth of the monster as it drew in another breath to spew more magma. He did not dare let go of the rope, as doing so would cause the Dwarf to plummet the remaining thirty-five or so feet to the cavern floor below. There were several pools of magma very close to where he could potentially land, and if he slipped and fell into one of them…

            The dragon beat its mighty wings and climbed even higher into the cavern, still drawing breath as it ascended. For only a moment the beast was lost in the thick smoke and haze that clung to the ceiling like a living creature, roiling and churning as the dragon beat her wings.

            Ronnath’s hand was a blur as he drew and fired blindly into the haze far above. He knew there was little chance that he would land a telling shot, but he had to try. The creature – thank the gods above it was not an adult – was still deadly but small. This combined with the haze and cover provided by the smoke, it would require the luck of the god of the hunt to hit it.

            Still, he launched nearly half of the remaining arrows in his quiver and was both surprised and gratified when he heard a scream of pain and outrage. At least one of the shafts found its target.

            A heartbeat later the dragon appeared out of the smoke, its reptilian features twisted in anger and hatred, several of the arrows sticking out of her body. The creature’s blood was hot enough to melt stone, so the shafts were quickly consumed by the heat and turned into ash. Where they had struck, boiling blood poured from the wounds, dripping and burning through the air to mingle with the magma below. She opened her mouth and exhaled a stream of broiling magma at the group on the ledge.

            Thorn - as he had before, dodged out of the way of the blast, not even getting splashed. Ronnath and Dannis were not quite so lucky. The magma landed on the rope and burned through it in less than a second, sending the Dwarf plummeting to the magma pools below. Ronnath screamed in pain as part of the blast caught him from behind, melting his shirt to the flesh beneath. He managed to rip the burning fabric off his back and tossed it to the ground.

            Unfortunately the magma also destroyed his quiver, and only a pair of shafts remained intact. They clattered to the ledge and were about to go over when, despite the sheer agony from the burns, he leapt and grabbed both just as they were about to go over. Through the haze of pain ripping through his entire body, he could see Dannis hanging by his fingertips, about twenty feet from the ground.

            Every movement shot daggers of pain, racing along his nervous system and he was terrified he would pass out before they could deal with the Magma Dragon. He knew that if he lost consciousness, it would be over. He would awaken in the afterlife, hunting alongside the god he worshipped. Maybe that would not be such a bad thing, he thought and then shook the darkness away.

            Not today.

            Standing, he watched as Thorn called upon the arcane energies he channelled and brought forth another pair of missiles, which he launched at the dragon. As with the previous spell, these found their target.

            The dragon screamed in pain and flitted away, turning her back on the small group. Before she disappeared into the smoke and haze of the upper reaches of the cavern, Ronnath saw she was filling her lungs once again, preparing for a third strike with the deadly magma she spewed.

            Nocking an arrow, he grimaced at the pain radiating up his back, channeled down his arms and the backs of his legs. The regenerative properties of his magical healing were already hard at work, rebuilding the burned flesh and muscle. With each passing second the pain was receding, but it was still so intense that he felt as if he was ready to swoon.

            And then there she was. The dragon appeared as if she had teleported from the haze, only about fifty feet from him. He adjusted his aim ever so slightly and let the first of the last two shafts fly. She had opened her mouth and was about to exhale when she saw what he was about to do. At the very last instant, the Magma Dragon veered to the right and the shaft missed her mouth by mere inches.

            It did not miss her wing.

            Luck was on his side and turned her back on the dragon. The arrow’s head ripped through the scales that covered the very edge, right where the wing met the shoulder. It bit deeply into the flesh beneath and severed the tendons and muscle and as the dragon screamed in agony, her left wing suddenly went limp, flopping uselessly as the right tried to compensate.

            This caused the dragon to spin in mid-air, her control completely gone. There was no way she could recover, and at the speed and the direction she was flying, the magnificent beast flew head first into the wall, only about two yards from where Dannis was hanging on for dear life.

            Both Dwarf and Dragon plummeted towards the cavern floor, both screamed in pain and fear, but only Dannis was able to push aside his terror and he had enough wits about him to draw his hammer and with only a fraction of a second to spare, he used his momentum to propel the heavy instrument of destruction down upon the Dragon’s skull, even as he landed with a grunt and yelled as something in his leg gave way.

            There was a sickening crunch as the hammer smashed through the scales and the thick bone of the Magma Dragon’s forehead and the weapon pulverized bone, driving it through both eyes and into the brain behind. The orbs exploded with a hiss of boiling blood and steam, spewing goblets everywhere, some hitting the Dwarf.

            Dannis cried out in pain and desperately wiped at the burning, clinging substance as the Magma Dragon shuddered one last time before her soul departed to whatever afterlife awaited the elemental creature.

            For several moments, no one moved, no one dared to speak, least they break the illusion they perceived. They had won – sure it was not an adult dragon or worse, one of the older, great wyrms, but the Magma Dragon was not something to be trifled with. And then Dannis began to laugh. It started out as a low chuckle and quickly ballooned into a genuine belly laugh, and despite the pain from his broken leg, he slapped his belly and continued to guffaw.

            Of course it was contagious. Ronnath and Thorn joined in, letting all the tension and stress of the brief battle escape, cleansing them of the fear that had eaten away at them when the beast had reared its scaled head.

            Enough time had passed that the burns he had suffered from the Magma blast had faded to a dull-but-manageable level and Ronnath quickly scaled the wall to inspect his companion’s leg. Sure enough he had snapped his left leg cleanly, and fortunately for him it was not a compounded fracture. The Dwarf looked up at him and wiped his eyes, a huge smile still visible beneath the soot-covered beard. “Me never thought I’d see the day when a Dragon… a damned Dragon would face-plant into a wall like that!” He chuckled and closed his eyes.

            “It is a sight I’ll take to my grave,” Ronnath laughed. A combination of luck, good for him and his two companions, and bad for the Magma Dragon, he thought as he inspected the broken limb. All he needed to do was straighten the bone so that it fit back together and then a vial of the healing elixir would do the rest.

“We certainly got lucky, didn’t we?” Dannis commented.

Ronnath knew that to be true. The battle could have gone very wrong for the Dwarf and the two Elves, but the goddess of luck was watching over them, and probably rolled the dice and laughed at the irony of the encounter.

“Aye,” Ronnath said and then grabbed hold of the Dwarf’s leg with both hands. With a savage yank and twist, he set the bone, cleanly and without muss. The Dwarf’s eyes flew open and his mouth formed a perfect O as the pain hit him, and then he promptly passed out. Ronnath could not help but chuckle, and then felt guilty for it. Still he thanked the god of the hunt that his companion was out. It would help dull the pain, although they had plenty of magical elixirs to help heal the damage the Dwarf had sustained.

            Thorn joined him a minute later but he held his eyes on the pile of gold. Already he was emptying out the backpack he had been carrying, tossing out pieces of equipment that had at the beginning of the venture seemed so vital.

            With all the gold waiting to be claimed, it did not seem so important anymore.                  

            Ronnath ignored him and opened a vial of healing potion and then forced it down the Dwarf’s throat. A moment later the man opened his eyes and breathed out a sigh of relief. “Ye could warn a Dwarf next time,” he said harshly, but there was a twinkle of thanks in his eyes.

            All three turned to stare at the remains of the dragon. After her life-force fled the battered corpse, the creature began to cool and was already solidifying into a mass of scales and rock. In a matter of hours it would resemble a statue instead of the living creature it had once been.

            “So,” Ronnath said, pulling his eyes off the dead dragon and allowing them to penetrate the haze so he could see the pile of gold. “How much of that do you think we can carry out of here?”

 

End