After a few uneventful days in Harveston, Lauretta had finished collecting information about the Winterwood. She had come to the area in search of a Dragon Shrine, one of dozens of holy places for the shamans who worshiped the great sky serpents. The shrines typically give rise to magical anomalies – such as the perpetual cold and frost that gives the Winterwood its name. According to locals in Harveston, the heart of the Winterwood is royal hunting grounds – going too near the place is a crime punishable by death. That is, of course, if you aren’t killed by the spirits or snow golems that roam through the area.
No one could confirm that there was a dragonshrine in the forest, but the tell-tale signs were there and Lauretta had already traveled this far – she invited her new friends along for the trip. They set out from town and directly into the woods, walking down game trails and seldom used paths – cutting their way through thick underbrush. It was autumn, and the leaves were golden and brown, the forest preparing to hibernate for the winter season.
As they traveled, the weather grew colder. Trees grew barren and most seemed dead – as if they hadn’t had a spring in decades and had forgotten what leaves were. The underbrush thinned, replaced by deep snow drifts and patches of ice. The air grew colder, the wind started biting, and the adventurers realized that they were not prepared for this type of weather. None had thought to bring a thicker jacket or a warm blanket. But they pressed on, pushing their luck as far as it would go.
They had spent two nights in the snow, huddled together and shivering, before they located the Dragon Shrine. It was at the heart of the Winterwood, in the coldest, most icy portion of the forest. The small stone structure – obviously dwarven made – had a flat roof rimmed with short, blocky parapets. Columns line the outside walls, carved into claws and wings and dragon jaws. There was a small plaza in front of the entrance. A circle of large stone pillars, each carved to resemble a dozen dragons which where stacked standing on the shoulders of the dragon below them, outlined the plaza, which was buried in frost and snow.
There were many creatures around the building. Translucent serpents with wings, like the ghosts of thin, young dragons, hovered above the frozen ground. Their wings didn’t move, they simply swam through the air, slithering back and forth like snakes, wandering aimlessly. They would occasionally stop and breath out a cone of magic, swirling the snow up into a vaguely humanoid, vaguely dwarfish shape. Then the eyes of the serpent would glow, and the snowman would shudder to life, trudging through the knee-deep snow, wandering, like their creator, aimlessly and randomly about.
Benny, huddling in the snow, watched with a mixture of apprehension. But as he studied the creatures, Lauretta and Rashirel walked into the thick of them heading towards the front door of the shrine. The women had their weapons and shields out, but the creatures paid them no mind continuing to meander about between the dead trees that surrounded the winter-clad building. At least, that is, until the women stepped into the column ringed plaza.
As if seeing the women for the first time, a dozen creatures turned, almost in unison, and charged at the human and orc. The surrounded them, the translucent dragons biting and clawing while the golems swung their snow-and-ice fists like hammers. The women brought up their shields and batted the attacks aside with their weapons, but there were too many assailants, and more than a few strikes drew blood.
The women countered, scattering frost and snow as their weapons crashed through the golems. Several collapsed into piles of snow. Benny took advantage of the fact that all of the creatures were focused on the two warriors. He snuck around the outside of the plaza, as close to the entrance to the shrine as he could get, before stepping into the circle of columns.
The guardians were still occupied with the women, and Benny had time to study the front of the shrine. The main door – heavily reinforced wood – was locked, and there was an inscription in several languages next to the door:
Pretty, Regal, Alabaster scales
Xenial, Mighty, Elegant tail
Grandiose, Terrifying, Herald of frozen fields
Ostentatious, Frightful, scourge of battlefields.
Of whom do I speak?
Well, thought Benny, it would make sense that there is a way to bypass the creatures that are protecting the shrine. He turned to see the women still out numbered by the guardians, though a growing pile of frost and snow showed that the creatures were dying rather quickly. The fighters themselves looked worse for wear, a dozen bloody gashes, dents from the hammer-like fists of the golems, and the bitter cold of the air were taking their tole.
“Lauretta,” Benny called out, “these shrines are dedicated to specific dragons right? What dragon’s shrine is this?”
“I don’t know,” Lauretta replied as she continued fighting. She caught a set of claws on her shield, shoved them aside, and counter-attacked with her mace, knocking large chunks of ice off the translucent serpent in front of her. “No one in Harvesten even knew the shrine was here; I was sort of guessing with this trip. And I only know the name of one winter dragon, Azul.”
“Azul,” Benny said, turning back to the door. There was no reaction. He tried again, attempting to translate the name into the few languages he could speak, but the door remained locked. “I don’t think that’s it,” he called over his shoulder to his companions. “There’s some sort of riddle here, what do you think of it.” He read it out to them.
“What does xenial mean?” Rashirel asked, cleaving her mace through the face of one serpent and into the wings of another. “That doesn’t even sound like a word the common language would use.”
“You’re right,” Benny said, scratching the scruff of beard at his chin. He puzzled over the inscription in the other languages he could read, and noticed that there were several instances where a word was used that made little sense in context. The meaning could have been conveyed with a more commonly understood word. So why choose an odd sounding, obscure word? And then the answer became clear.
“Praxmegthof,” Benny said, and the door to the shrine swung open. Benny ducked inside, and called out to his companions in case they hadn’t noticed.
Lauretta and Ras were still surrounded by snowmen and icy dragon spectres. They focused their blows on those creatures between them and the shrine, cutting a way through the plaza. They batted aside more blows, catching others with their armor, dodging and countering as best they could in their weakened state. When a way was made clear, they made a dash through the deep snow, practically diving through the entrance with the guardians in pursuit.
As they stepped beyond the threshold, the creatures immediately lost interest. With their own battle wounds, broken wings, missing limbs, the guardians went back to wandering through the plaza and nearby trees. The party had time to catch their breath and dress their wounds.
The inside of the shrine was even colder than the snow outside. It was one small room with only the one door to the outside. Frost and ice covered the stone floors, and icicles dangled from the ceiling. There was a circle of runes on the floor near the entrance, a magic circle that, luckily, hadn’t been triggered by their entrance. The walls were decorated with a huge mural that started on one side of the door and circled around the entire room, ending at the other side of the entrance. On the ceiling above the end of the mural was a second circle of runes. A large stone statue of a magnificent white dragon covered in horns and spines stood at the back of the room, wings and claws spread to make it seem all the larger, all the more powerful.
At the feet of the dragon, on a small pedestal, was a small pile of gems and a piece of parchment. Lauretta, hoping that this would be a clue to guide her quest for the Dragon King, took up the paper and read.
_"In this shrine I have hidden an egg of a white dragon. The previous owner was a half-orc raider and drug peddler that I killed near the northern foothills of the Chrimoran mountains. As a dragon shaman I felt that the egg should be given only to another dragon shaman, or else to a dragon, and I felt that this shrine would be a safe way of finding a suitable owner.
I have taken care to make sure that only a dragon shaman can find the egg, and that that shaman will be both strong and wise. I would suggest that anyone else not attempt to find the egg, for your own sake.
Praxmegthof will guide you if you follow her backwards. Use your eyes."_
Lauretta placed the paper back down, and looked at the gems. Two diamonds, two emeralds, two rubies, two sapphires, two amethysts, all of them were the size of a thumbnail and cut into smooth ovals. Offerings, Lauretta thought, to the dragon of the shrine. Or, perhaps, something left by the author of the note. She pocketed the gems, picked the parchment back up, and turned back to her companions.
Benny was crouched over the magic circle near the entrance, studying the runes to decipher the function and suspecting that it was what prevented the guardian creatures from entering the structure. It also had a second function, to prevent certain objects from passing through the doorway. This, Benny thought, was probably to prevent thieves from taking the offerings that were left at the shrine.
Ras was walking the perimeter of the small room, reading the story told by the mural. It followed the life of the dragon to which the shrine was dedicated. From an egg thrown from the nest by her clutch-mates, to a child bending kingdoms to her will, to an adult raining destruction from the sky, to an elder atop a horde of gold and bones. The last image of the dragon, nearest the door and resting underneath the magical runes drawn on the ceiling, was missing its eyes – having instead two oval-shaped grooves.
Lauretta shared the contents of the parchment, and it didn’t take them long to understand that the gems atop the pedestal were meant to be placed into the mural. Keeping an eye on the magic circle, Lauretta placed the two amethyst into the mural. The grating sound of stone sliding on stone revealed a spiral staircase in the back corner of the room.
The party descended, and stepped into a series of puzzles that took them through the life of Praxmegthof. They started with her marriage to the dwarven king, then back to when she orchestrated the poisoning of all the aristocrats during the kingdom wars. Backwards still to when she starved villages by destroying crops, then to the hatchling flying above the yew trees. At the end of the dungeon, there was a nest of ice and snow and bone cradling a dragons egg. It was as white as snow, and streaked with icy blue veins. Lauretta picked it up, and the party suddenly found themselves at the foot of the stairwell – all the puzzles having been little more than temporary, magical constructs.
Though she did not find anything to help her with the Dragon King, Lauretta decided that the party should head back to Harveston. They took the egg with them, concealed within a magically enchanted bag. Benny had determined that there were magic enchantments on the egg, but was unable to determine their exact purpose. He did feel, however, that if he had a few days to study the egg he would be able to learn more.
The party had to run out of the entrance of the shrine, sprinting away from the guardians lest they get surrounded again. It took several days to get back to town, but they managed to smuggle the dragon egg up into their room without anyone knowing.