Chapter 4: Looking for followers
Ten years passed since the den changed into a dungeon. Every day was a struggle, fighting for food, defending the dungeon and splitting the spoils of war. The four little lizards grew a lot, reaching the height of a large lion and acquired higher ranks in both mana and aura cultivation. While the four siblings had been hunting as a pack, each of them acquired different features along with their progress in cultivation. As a group they were regarded as a local power, feared by other intelligent dwellers of the forest.
Little Breeze changed the most, the small emerald lizard grew two feathered wings, and the small tail grew to almost twice its body length. The fast attacks of the air element transformed into terrifying sweeps from the airborne dragon; when Little Breeze arced down onto other small birds or preyed upon small monsters in the forest akin to a green flash.
Little Stream changed from a small lizard into a long amphibian reptile. Through playing and hunting near the river for a long time, gills started growing near the throat of the azure salamander, and fins grew near the claws matching the hue of the azure scales. Although it loved lazing around in the lake downstream from the cave, there were no other creatures that could beat the swimming and diving speed of that lazy waterdragon.
Little Terra didn’t develop any new parts, but fortified its already heavy defenses. Its whole body got densely covered by earthly yellow plates, with spikes growing along the spine and from there to the backside of each limb. Almost no enemy was currently able to break the armored plates and most of them simply had to succumb to the heavy charge of the armored wyrm, ripping them apart with sharp spikes.
Little Flame kept the dark scales with vermillion tips, looking quite sinister. From all of the siblings, the dark dragon looked the most like a typical dragon. Teardrop scales, four strong limbs, a muscular yet slender body, two wings with a leathery membrane and two horns on top of the head. Like the other dragons, Little Flame had slit, snake-like pupils, whose iris took a golden shade with small black rifts running through.
The strongest defense belonged to Little Terra, the fastest speed was claimed by Little Breeze, the greatest agility was claimed by Little Stream.
Nonetheless, if you asked any of the magical beasts around the area who the strongest being here was, everyone would agree on the black dragon. Even if Little Flame couldn’t beat the other siblings in their areas of expertise, matching their greatest strength wasn’t a problem at all, furthermore it also excelled in one area.
While the cave nourished aura and mana cultivation, the black dragon’s aura aspect gained proficiency much faster. At first Little Flame could only use the [Dragon Breath] with the power of the third aura rank, a bright red flame imbued with the flame element. Little Flame did not develop the attack through trial and error, but remembered the spell upon breaking through the third aura rank despite never having used it. However another breakthrough to the second mana rank changed the properties of the attack, the red flame stream changed to a sinister black colouring, the newly fiendish flame gained a corrosive attribute that even Little Terra was afraid of.
A strong mountain bear had once challenged the siblings for the right to rule the cave along with the surrounding area, hungering for the rich amount of energy in the air. Little Terra, Little Stream and Little Breeze worked together to try to get rid off the intruder, but eventually were unable to win against the strong rank 4 beast, as the steel black hide of the bear was as hard as iron. If the grizzly was any faster the pack would have incurred heavy losses by the heavy strikes that could smash stones. They only incurred light wounds by warding off the majority of the blow and taking a small hit from the remaining energy.
The whole situation turned around when Little Flame returned to the cave after a hunt and dropped the prey it carried in awe. Looking at the the wounds and desperate situation, rage took over and the furious Little Flame unleashed a mighty [Black Flame Breath]. The attack was mixing the aura of the [Flame Breath] with the corrosive nature of the Dark attribute, giving birth to this new kind of technique. The [Mountain Grizzly] couldn’t put up a defense against the devouring force of the black flames, since monsters who were only proficient in aura lacked defense against mana. The hard fur and thick skin of the beast crumbled under the heavy assault and the flames burned the flesh of the bear, filling the air with the scent of sizzling fat.
The siblings happily ate away from the carcass, recovering their wounds and savouring the tasty meat of a strong and aura-rich fiend.
After this incident, the ‘Dragon’s Dungeon’ was soon acknowledged as a strong local power.
Magic beasts were quite rare to begin with, so the siblings found it hard to break through further mana rank without mana-rich meat in their diet. Additionally most of the magical beasts were smart enough to respect the domain of the dragon pack, trying to stay on friendly terms and not antagonizing them, so their diet lacked mana rich flesh. The fairy forest to the north and the harpies on the mountain to the west in fact formed friendly relations with the dragon den when their queens visited the dungeon after the dragons proficiency in hunting grew enough, along their ranks, to warrant concern, and the dragon’s ability to speak developed into making communication possible. The original purpose was to ask the dragons not to hunt any members of their tribe, yet the queens were pleasantly surprised by Little Flame gifting them valuable herbs and textiles. The fairy queen and the harpy queen returned from time to time to trade spirit liquor and exquisite monster meat respectively whenever there was an excess or they were in need of the treasures growing in the cave.
Thus unable to rely on mana rich meat to hasten their progress, the little dragons only depended on naturally accumulating mana to advance in their cultivation, and only Little Flame achieved the third rank after a full 10 years. Similarly the black dragon was also the strongest in regards to aura, reaching the peak of the fourth rank while the others barely stepped into the fourth rank this year.
The ability to communicate with other beasts also provided the opportunity for the dungeon to change from a simple hollow cave into a prestigious dragon den.
As Little Terra was exploring caves on the nearby mountain and hunting for its daily meal it stumbled upon a tribe of [Grey Gnomes], who were naturally gifted in stoneworking and turned a big cave into a primitive village. The tribe had nearly perished after they had dug out deep mine shafts in the search of iron ore, breaking into a deeper set of tunnels in the mountain. A group of [Spider Weavers] had emerged from the depths of the mountain, immediately driven by the urge to kill and devour the gnomes. Little Terra trampled upon the younglings who had reached rank 2 but had a longer fight with the broodmother. She had a higher rank than her children, but was unable to pierce the heavy plates of her opponent, while Little Terra had issues with the high speed and agility of the spider, who kept dodging the dragon’s incoming rush attacks. Little Terra settled the fight by smashing the spider against the wall with its full body weight.
Grateful for the help, the leader of the gnomes entered into a servant bond with the saviour of their tribe, which allowed a small telepathic bond. Over this bond Little Terra was taught bits and pieces of the common adventurer tongue. The tribe of grey gnomes followed Little Terra back to the dungeon and settled there under its protection. With constant instruction and guidance from the wyrm the gnomes transformed the original earthen cave into a skillfully carved and stone-furnished lair, constantly providing maintenance. Additionally the gnomes greatly expanded the small cave in the hill to a great set of halls and rooms, while each of the four biggest rooms belonged to one the four rulers of the dungeons, albeit the rooms differed in nature.
By excavating precious ores, Little Terra’s room was the one that resembled the original cavern the most. Decorated by precious gems and metals, the walls gave the impression of a place deep below the earth, radiating earth type energy and giving the [Grey Gnomes] as well as Little Terra a comfortable feeling. Situated below Little Terra’s room was another room, or a large hall to be correct. Inside this hall grew a city of stone, hosting the tribe. The earth type mana and aura welling up inside the wyrm’s lair above the gnomes helped them improve their growth speed. After the bed made of leaves got replaced by a pile of gold and silver, Little Terra mostly lazed around and directed the gnomes by the telepathic bond in construction and renovation work around the cave
Little Breeze befriended the daughters of the harpy queen and invited them to stay in its chamber. Collecting various animal furs, Little Breeze and the two harpy sisters gathered shiny items, regardless of rarity or value. Borrowing the work force of the grey gnomes, the outer parts of the hill also underwent some changes. On top of the hill a stone tower appeared, connecting the cave with the outside, allowing the flying lizard and its playmates to soar straight into the sky. From spring to autumn the surrounding monsters would spare careful glances to the sky occasionally, fearing a fast dive of nimble claws ripping a life from the forest. In the winter furs covered the entrance of the stone tower, creating a warm cave for the holed up harpies and Little Breeze.
The other change to the outside of the hill was the stream of water running from the hill and out of the cave towards the small river in the forest. Watching closely, steam could be seen rising from the new water source in the early morning or the evening. Indeed, while digging for precious ore nodes the grey gnomes unearthed several hot water veins in the hill. Little Stream expressed the wish to have these veins redirected to its own room, eventually forming a hot water basin leaving the chamber half flooded, while the excess water exited the cave through a drain leading to the main room of the dungeon in an attempt to warm it, and flowed in stone channels out of it. The other dragons would come over from time to time to soak in the hot water, but Little Stream used it as a bed and resting place. After years of improving and working on the dungeon foundation, stone pipes ran through the whole place, heating up the cave in winter and providing another business opportunity for the lizard siblings. Splitting the hot water veins created an open air bath surrounded by later built stone walls at the backside of the hill, and a small forest started growing in the surroundings of the second stream leaving the thermae. It could be used by the visiting harpies, fairies as well as the dungeon’s smaller inhabitants, while the room of Little Stream was for the personal use of the rulers of the cave only.
Lured by the appeal of a hot water source, a small group of Fairy Nymphs settled in the meadow and borrowed the help of Little Stream to build a small village, in exchange for working as service attendants in the newly opened hot spring. The head of the tribe, a beautiful [Water Nymph] entered into a servant bond with Little Stream, and started living in the inner water chamber, serving meals or alcohol for the different dragons that came to soak in the hot water, and submitted her tribe to the rule of the water dragon. Before she came to live here, she had no hope to survive with her tribe on her own, as her aura rank did not surpass the peak of the third rank, and she had attained the first mana rank only by chance. The fairies were providing her tribe with a place to stay, but the lure of a hot water spring and the friendly relations between the Fairy Forest and the Dragon Den made it possible for her to resettle her tribe peacefully under the protective reign of the amphibian dragon’s domain, allowing them to live as an independent village.
Spring came again and marked the beginning of the tenth year since the mighty siblings claimed the place for themselves, but Little Flame wasn’t particularly happy. The biggest room belonged to the master of the cave, and the dark dragon had lots of precious items laying around. After achieving the second rank in mana cultivating, it became possible for the dragon to store precious items directly in a soul space after infusing them with mana, so the amount of items lying around only represented the smallest and most common amount of goods in its possession. Despite the dragons getting stronger as a whole, things like armor or weapons only appeared in Little Flames room, never in one of the others. Herbs, ores and other resources appeared in everyone’s places, but something was special about the refuge of the leader. Little Flame couldn’t use any of the armors, weapons or clothes, only stored them away in the large space existing within its own soul.
Furs and other trophies of strong prey decorated the walls, gems were adorning the frame of the bedding in the back of the room, while the rest was made of silk and other precious fabrics. Recently there wasn’t even a need to hunt anymore, as the tribes under their control gained enough strength to provide their masters with meat and similar
delicacies, and other powers nearby also exchanged that kind of things for the goods of the Dragon Den, so Little Flame had little to do besides providing the protection of the area against strong monsters and lazing around in the sun. By living in the dungeon and not moving around much, the frequency where the dragons had to eat also lessened, the energy in the air somewhat sustaining them as well.
The dragon siblings used to hunt together, fight against monsters and spirit beasts together, discovered new enemies and new allies all together. Every day was filled with thrill and adventure, chancing upon new things and sharing joy and meals together. In the recent days it was rare for all of them to get together, soak in the hot water as a group or simply huddle together to sleep like they first did after discovering the cave. Each of them had responsibilities, things to take care of and organize.
Little Terra had a folk to govern and was taking care of the masonry, constantly inspecting and improving the residence. Preparing the excavated ores and precious metals, refining the raw ores with a dragon breath, constructing new residences and improving the den took up a lot of time.
Little Breeze was in charge of trade, exchanging goods and developing friendly relationships with domains in the vicinity, as well as transporting everything that was to be bartered. Together with the two daughters of the Harpy Queen it commanded some forces of the Harpy Tribe which would likely break away from the main tribe and form an independent second tribe around the stone tower, a good living ground for any airborne race.
Little Stream took care of the internal affairs, the storage of items and the entertainment of guests, taking time to groom the nymph tribe into capable hosts and attendants of the Dragons Den. After talking things through with the Water Nymph, both of them worked together to cultivate a field of herbs near the forest of the nymphs, producing more wares to trade with.
Unlike the others Little Flame did not acquire something to do yet. There was of course the duty to keep the domain safe, act as a head of the pack, but besides lazing around and collecting strange items there wasn’t anything else left to do. Feeling lonely and bored, Little Flame left the main chamber for the first time in several weeks. The water nymph was surprised to see the black dragon emerge, it had been a while for her to see even a hint of the dark red and black scales.
“Master.” Hastily bowing down and calling out to be respectful, the nymph didn’t wish to tarry, as the other servants who delivered food into the chamber had been speaking of a dark vibe gathering around the sullen dragon, the light seemingly vanishing as soon as it hit the black scales. The scared nymphs also reported a foul mood spreading, inviting chills to creep up their backs and frightening them badly whenever they delivered food.
Little Flame glanced at the dutiful woman before responding in the common tongue, a language used by adventurers from all over the continent. By associating with all sorts of different races, the dragon siblings also picked up some basic understanding of the language, which was useful in negotiating directly to the interlocutor, instead of using the telepathic bond between the servants who spoke the language.
“Going out, tell others if they seek me. Won’t be back for while,” the moody dragon said. Just a moment before, the gloom was visible in the air, but the thought of going out and finding a project on its own or a tribe to govern changed the whole atmosphere into a cheerful glow, a draconic smirk sneaking itself onto Little Flames face.
After walking through the busy main hall, Little Flame spread its wings and flew away, leaving the busy grey gnomes to their work currently consisting of inlaying all of the stone ornaments with metal intricacies.
The Water Nymph made a mental note to tell the other rulers of the absence of the master, and sent some of the servants to clean the now vacant chamber. She had no idea what could move the solemn black dragon into being this enthusiastic, but as the head of the maids and servants she most likely wouldn’t get to know, and asking a dragon about their matters was a good way to get a little dragon breath in return.