The Dragon Isles
“First brought to the attention of the Old World by bold tilean explorers like Luka Huarugoin and the dwarf fleets from Barak Varr, the Dragon Isles have slowly found their way into our maps, one rumor at a time. They are described as a small group of tropical islands within the Sea of Dread. Located south of the Darklands and east of the Southlands, the islands are separated by the Sea of Storms from the mainland, while the eastern sea is called the Lizard Sea, for reasons that will soon be obvious. The archipelago consists of three large islands and several smaller ones, a place where navigation is made dangerous by currents, bad weather and uncharted shoals, making any attempt to land difficult without an experienced pilot. The islands are covered by dense jungle and are known for their riches, including diamonds, jade, lapis lazuli and rare timber. That should make them subject to colonization by any nation bold enough to do it, but in the case of the Dragon Isles, the only thing more infamous than their wealth is the reason why looking for it is akin to suicide.
As if the harsh nature of the fever infected jungles was not enough, the islands are well known for a reptilian predatory fauna that puts the Old World bestiary to shame and can only compare to what can be found in Lustria. This includes creatures catalogued long ago: vicious packs of Horned Ones, apex predators like the bloodthirsty Carnosaur, poisonous Salamanders hunting trough the swamplands, Stegadons laying waste to the jungle as they fight for supremacy, Great Wyrms, feathered Coatls and Terradons flying over the canopy, and colossal Thunder Lizards. More mysteriously, rumors speak of feral two-legged lizards inhabiting abandoned ruins and ferociously denying entrance to intruders. They seem to bear a certain resemblance to the lustrian lizardmen, but they lack the primitive trappings of civilization explorers have found in the New World. One way or another, the entire archipelago is the most hostile environment one could hope for, a hunting ground where every living thing kills or is killed. Witnesses tell of an even more disturbing phenomenon, an unnerving change in the animals’ behavior when interlopers set foot on land. As soon as warmbloods enter their territory, the creatures abandon their mutual hostility and rush to defend their islands, a common berserk reaction, an instinctive truce that lasts until the warmbloods are devoured or forced to return to sea. This unnatural territoriality, which some link to a defense mechanism whose authors are unknown, has allowed life on the Dragon Isles to continue in its most primeval form, as it has done since before the realms of men.
We owe many of our information on the subject to the controversial estalian conquistador Cayetano Díaz de Talavera, a man described both as a brilliant seaman who almost circumnavigated the globe, and as a complete cretin who managed the feat of reaching Ind while sailing to Lustria. What is undoubtable is that he left a fascinating journal of his travels and everything he witnessed. He and his crew fought in Ind for several years as mercenaries. Riding a sea Sierpe by the name of “Quijada”, he took part in dozens of conflicts on land and sea and quickly thrived; serving rulers and rogues and profiting handsomely, a fact he was quite proud of noting.
According to Cayetano, indyans were probably the first humans to reach the Dragon Isles. Since the forgotten day the first fishermen set foot on the archipelago searching for water, and since the day the first survivors returned to port rambling about the horrors they had witnessed somewhere in the dark western sea, the islands have become a fixed rumor and source of both dread and gossip in the coastal taverns. Soon explorers set sail farther west they had ever gone. As the islands’ wealth became fact, maharajahs asked for reports on the matter and for colonization plans. In the next years and decades, larger and larger fleets headed west, starting an age of exploration that would lead indyans all the way to the Southlands and to establish their first contact with Araby.
But as for the Dragon Isles, no expedition, no matter how well equipped or armed, ever settled successfully. Attracted by the dream of fabulous wealth, thousands of soldiers and colonizers vanished in the jungles, never to be seen again. Eventually the very settlements were overrun by living tides of teeth and claws. The fascination gave way to pessimism and the realization that the islands should better be left alone. The cost was too high, the rulers of Ind returned to more prosaic matters, and the islands went back to their isolation.
Only one kind of people have refused to resign themselves to this situation: the motley society of the western coasts, an incontrollable fauna of wreckers, pirates and petty rajahs who gather their fleets at Angre Fort, a pirate haven diplomatically ignored by local rulers. From there, they make a living by sacking merchant fleets and selling their services to maharajahs in need of ships. Unable to compete with the powerful kingdoms of the hinterlands, those pirates and robber lords have always turned to the sea for wealth, and in the seamen communities their crews are made of, the Dragon Isles remain an irresistible mirage. It is precisely at Angre Fort where a self-proclaimed “Rajah of the Dragon Islands”, who apparently had never set foot on his “domain”, hired Cayetano for an expedition. The purpose was as always to find riches, creatures to sell to the courts’ menageries, and relics from the abandoned cities, those trinkets being well rewarded by the temples. The estalian writes many pages about the dangers to be found on the islands but adds nothing new to what is already known. The most interesting and sinister part of his tale involve a different kind of danger. A civilized one, if such a word could ever be used to describe what he saw.
With the benefit of insight, it seems Cayetano’s employer hid important information from him. Once the fleet left Angre Fort, not a single indyan gave a word of warning. It was something the captains and the crews avoided talking about until it was too late, as if they thought mentioning it would bring ill luck and they hoped the danger would pass them by this time. Only when the estalians saw the columns of black smoke approaching the islands from the north, and the indyans’ terror at the sight of it, did they realize humans were not the only ones with a claim on the archipelago. And that Carnosaurs are not the worst thing one can find in that forgotten corner of the World…”
Extracts from the journal of Cayetano Díaz de Talavera:
“The first thing I noticed was the noise. Like a hundred hammers and pistons and dwarven steam machines working in unison. Every one of those vessels was like a forge thrown to the sea and floating against all logic. Colossal, grotesques, all metal, all smoke. Nothing so big should float, let alone sail at such a speed. Nothing should make so much noise. The masters of that fleet were not seeking secrecy. They wanted everyone from miles around to know they were coming and they advanced on the coast with an absolute lack of prudence that spoke of the contempt they felt for us. I could see no one on the deck, there was no deck, everything was covered, reinforced, armored. No finesse, no elegance, and they were moving so fast we had no time to prepare before hell was unleashed.
From the beach, I could see our fleet frantically trying to break away; I could hear the bosuns yelling orders and counter orders. I turned to Gaudham, ready to break his neck for not warning me, but I stopped when I saw him and his crew. Those indyans were veteran cutthroats, mercenaries and reavers, insensible like slabs of meat. Now they were white with fear and their eyes told me they knew exactly what was upon us. My crew was in no better shape, and when I realized my hands were shaking, the mysterious fleet opened fire.
Those were not cannonballs. No cannonball shrieks like a raptor, no cannonball has wraiths and specters riding upon its trail. They pierced the sky slowly, so very slowly, as if they had all the time in the world and knew we were not going anywhere. The fleet vanished in front of me. Our seven ships were ripped into pieces by rockets and things I cannot describe. I swear on my honor I saw specters crash into our ships along with the missiles and rip the crews apart even as the vessels sank. A couple of minutes of ear shattering explosions, shrieks, and our companions screaming in terror and agony, and then silence again, as if nothing had happened. It took me a while to realize that in that time our fleet had been annihilated and we were stranded on the Dragon Isles.
Without much thought, Gaudham and I ordered the crew to run into the jungle. We grabbed what food and water we could and ran away from the beach without stopping to see how many were following. Only minutes before, the jungle seemed the most foreboding place this side of hell. Now it was the only thing keeping the hordes of hell away from us. We ran without a clear direction, tearing through the vegetation until we could run no more and started to gather around and recover some of our senses. Many of our people were lost. For several days after that, we heard them calling our names, asking for help, but could not find our way to them. Sooner or later a roar announced something else had. Then there were no more screams…
We decided our only chance was to cross the island as fast as possible and hope the rest of our fleet was waiting for us where we had agreed. So we did, heading for the highlands and keeping well away from the coast. Then we managed to see the beach from a promontory and we saw the metal fleet anchored where ours had been exterminated. There were dark shapes on the beach, shapes with axes. Those things were disembarking in force, burning the trees to open a trail and heading straight into the jungle.…
I cannot describe the days spend on that jungle. If we had forgotten about the fauna, we quickly corrected that mistake. The moment a swarm of carnivorous fishes took Delasoga and devoured him as he tried to find a passage across a river. From that point on, life reduced itself to marches west for as long as there was light, and nights resting as best we could, hoping to still be alive in the morning. Once we ran out of food and water, we ate lizards and insects and drank from streams until fever settled in. Then we drank rainwater. Every day was made of mud, rain, and burning sun, except when the canopy was so dense it covered all light. One by one the jungle took us. Some died from insect and snake bites, others from poisonous food, others drowned in quicksand, and others attacked by reptiles the size of horses. We hacked and killed so much our blades started to melt. Too many acids we could not clean. Quijada died fighting an enormous two legged saurian. The loyal sierpe jumped at its throat and we fled until the sound of their combat faded. But my mount never returned….
The nights were always the same, huddling together to fight of the dampness, in pitch blackness for we had nothing to light a fire with, every jungle noise - insects, birds and other things - humming in our ears, denying us sleep. After two nights, we started praying until fatigue forced us to close our eyes. The indyans recited their unending litanies, half-forgotten memories from their childhood. My companions prayed to Myrmidia and Ranald like duelists do at home, to the goddess for the rules of combat, to the god for the ways to break them. By morning, it was common to notice one of us was gone, taken away without a sound…
… I interrogated Gaudham about what had happened. As I suspected, my colleague had met those creatures before. Known as rakshasas, metal daemons, sons of the Black Bull, or simply slavers, the pirates from Angre know they are part of the many dangers of their trade. A rare danger but one of the worst, to the point my fellow captain promised a quarter of his share of plunder to a temple if the gods kept the metal fleets away. It is a rare day when indyans throw the gauntlet at them for as I saw, their ships carry an obscene level of firepower, most of it unnatural and clearly demonic in nature. They seem to have laid a claim on the Dragon Isles for it is around those waters the risks of running into them are higher. When it happens, indyans have learned to use their maneuverability to lose them in the labyrinth between islands before making for high sea. Any other strategy tends to end in disaster to the point Gaudham had never seen one in person, only their ships, which have become harbingers of disaster for any boat crossing the Bitter Sea. Gaudham may have told more, but one night something bit him. We never saw what did but five minutes later his veins had turned black beneath the skin. I stabbed him in the heart to end his wails…
We never saw the slavers, but there were clues of their presence. In fact, the indyans were convinced we managed to pass through the island only because the masters of the jungle were far more busy dealing with a more dreadful presence. I can believe it. As we travelled west, or tried to, we could hear roars, gunfire, and the ground shaking. Colossal beasts and heavy machinery were moving somewhere, and fighting. The metal daemons had plunged head on into the jungle, challenging the monsters we were doing so much to avoid.
We eventually found proof of it. As we meandered around a swamp looking for a way out, we were forced to go back east and found a field of battle. It was an artificial glade, created by torching the jungle. The ground itself was a mix of mud and ashes. All over the glade we found traces of battle. There was destroyed equipment of unknown purpose I could not identify, discarded pieces of armor and weapons, rotting corpses of predators of all kinds and sizes. They had been felled by blade and projectiles, but the blood on their teeth and claws seemed to indicate they had taken a toll on the slavers. Some of those carcasses had strange wounds. Enormous slabs of meat had been cleaved right of the bones, like in a butcher shop. The daemons were replenishing the larder. What made me more nervous at the time was the realization that this battle must have happened very close to our hiding place, and I had heard nothing. We had heard the creatures as always, but not a single scream, or command, or war cry from the invaders. They had fought in utter silence, feasted on the enemy and moved just the same. Only their machines gave them away, and the trail they had burned to leave the glade losing itself in the darkness. According to the indyans, they were heading for the ruins we would have plundered had the plan gone well.
We had barely left the glade ourselves when we found one of them. The lower half was missing, bitten most likely, but it was one of them. It was a dwarf I suppose, even though what I saw resembled a dwarf only in the most rudimentary sense. Covered in armor like one of their ships, grey skin, black beard, tusks, a cruel looking axe he had firmly kept in his hand as he was cut in two, and the most revolting look of hatred I had ever seen. I barely dared to touch him as I removed the small golden skulls on his beard. Then I ordered everyone to run, run into the deepest parts of the jungle, where those things, if they were truly dwarfs, could not find us.
We never saw them again. Days and nights came and went, companions were killed, eaten, poisoned, until time lost all meaning….
… until we found a river running west and followed it. Only when I finally saw the sea and the Tarasca anchored with the rest of the fleet did I tell myself I might not die on that island. Four of us remained, four out of the seventy five who ran into the jungle.”
The “slavers” Cayetano saw were Chaos Dwarfs. That much seems clear to me, but that conclusion only raises more questions for the information on that subject is scarce. They are a semi-legendary people, known only to a few merchant caravans lucky enough to survive the crossing of the Dark Lands on their way to the markets of the east. Some of those travelers talk of a race of corrupted dwarfs ruling the volcanic wastes and preying on the caravans in an unending quest for slaves. Besides these few facts, next to nothing is known of them and according to certain thinkers, they do not exist except in the myths surrounding everything beyond the World Edge Mountains. If the estalian’s testimony is truthful, it seems to indicate their influence extends far beyond their lands, and not even the nations of the Far East are safe from their depredations.
Cayetano’s notes become sporadic and conventional after the Dragon Isles. The experience clearly had a severe effect on him, and it would not be bold to assume he returned to Angre Fort a broken man. Soon after, he took his remaining crew on his last ship, overflowing with payment in gold and ivory, and set sail for Estalia. One year later, the Tarasca limped into the port of Diamanterra with a dozen half-starved conquistadors. Cayetano Díaz de Talavera was not amongst them. He and everyone else had died en route, either of disease or in a disastrous search for clean water on the Mangrove Coast. As for the survivors, they were forced to barter their wealth in Araby for food and water, including I guess the golden skulls prized from the dwarf corpse. Their expedition was quickly forgotten, and so was Cayetano. Only his journal remains to bear witness of the wars our eastern kin wage against the monsters of this world, and against each other.”
-Riniero Cornari, “Commentaries on the nature of the World”. Inspired by the “Travel journal of Cayetano Díaz de Talavera, of his many feats in the lands of Gold and Blood, of the many singular events he found himself entangled in, and of how he disentangled himself”.-