The Four- Chapter 9: Unforseen Conflict

Lia had gathered the others by the time Adran rejoined them. Peering into the strange, fungal garden, Malark was tense and edgy. Bouncing from foot to foot, swinging the long blade he wielded in carless, loose swipes. Seraphina was measuring arrows from one of the barrels in the room, and stuffing some into her quiver. Erky looked peaked, nervousness in his face, posture and manners. Lia flicked small motes of flame onto anything that could burn, setting the place alight.

“On?” Adran spoke the question they all had.

“I think we have to.” Seraphina spoke after a long pause. “No place down here to rest up. The goblins are back up top, and their master is somewhere down here.”

“And so far, no sign of this wild man. The druid. Or wizard.” Lia looked around as she spoke. Barrels, furs, a small chest, every flammable object cracked with yellow flames. “Or whatever he is.”

“Malark?” Adran was watching the big man pace.

“Find bad man. Kill bad man. Leave this place.”

“Erky?” Adran looked down at the tiny halfling.

“Oh, um Mr. Elf, I don’t…” He stammered.

“Just stay close. Hide if you need to. It is far too dangerous to just leave you here.”

“We’ll protect you. You’ll see.” Seraphina smiled her kind, warm smile.

Erky blushed, and looked away, “Hide. Yes, I can do that” he murmured.

“One more door.” Adran looked towards the stout door.

“Or a bunch” Lia snickered and winked, leaving the now-smoky cave for the musty air of the garden.

“Erky, might you do the honors?” Seraphina nocked an arrow and nodded towards the closed door. “Stay back, let us fight.”

Slipping one of his daggers into his worn belt, Erky grabbed the handle and looked back at the others. Pulling with all his might he tugged the door open.

Malark rushed ahead of the others, blocking any shots the archers might have. Shrugging, Adran raced after the impatient, angry warrior.

They found themselves in a long, columned chamber. Ten tall, carved columns supported a vaulted ceiling. Three aged, wooden doors lined each of the long walls. Debris and supplies littered the open area. There were distinct paths worn in the debris and rubble on the floor, connecting all of the doors. A faint hammering sound came from one of the doors, though it was too indistinct to tell from which door.

Lia had an eyebrow cocked; her eyes fixed on Adran. When he muttered “More doors” she blew a kiss and laughed out “told you.”

“Be wary. Too many doors.” Adran slung his bow and drew his sword. He pulled a small twist of thorny vine from a pouch on his belt, holding it like a tiny whip. He nodded towards the closest door, crouching in readiness. Seraphina stood next to him, bowstring taut, fingers at her cheek.

Erky tugged on the door, pulling it open on oiled hinges with barely a whisper, revealing a square room beyond. Rough pallets covered in furs and dirty blankets lay strewn across the room. Two of the pallets were occupied by snoring goblins, deep asleep.

Adran held his finger to his lips, motioning with his head to Erky to close the door.

“Why not kill?” Malark’s eyes were blazing, anger and restrained action making him more dangerous than ever.

“We don’t kill sleeping enemies.”

“Elf not kill them. Malark kill them all.”

“Easy, my friend,” Adran rested his hand on Malark’s sword hilt. “There is no honor in slaying a sleeping enemy.”

“Elf wake greenskins. Then Malark kill them.”

Adran pulled a piton from his pack, and slipped it under the door, wedging it tight. “Not now. Maybe, maybe they wake and come at us. Then I’ll slay them with you. With honor. Your brothers taught you honor?”

The huge man looked away; eyes misty for the briefest of moments. “Yes. Honor. Not fight fair, fight to win. Fight with honor.”

“There will be more goblins, I am sure of it. Come, let’s find them.”

Moving across the hall, Erky was ready when Malark and Adran nodded. The door swung open spilling out a strong scent of sourness. Fermenting fruit. Vinegar. Stacked barrels and several vats filled the room. Two goblins were naked in a large vat, arm in arm, stomping away. Wet squelches and splashes accompanied each of their steps. Fully absorbed in their stomping, they barely noticed the open door.

Finally looking at the elf and the man crowding the door, they gave no response. Neither was armed, though a pile of clothing and a pile of weapons lay close at hand.

“Wait, my big friend. Let them decide.” Adran held his hand close to his cheek, an arrow drawn. Calling back to Seraphina, he added “tell them to surrender. To go up and wait with the rest of their clan. Flee, or we cut them down.”

Seraphina repeated the command, her soft voice croaking and grating in the goblinoid tongue. Neither responded, so she repeated her words. Then spoke soft and low, “I don’t think they have any intention of leaving.”

One of the shifty gobbos gave a furtive glance at the pile of weapons, his muscles tensing slightly. Malark caught the intention, hurling an axe in a swift, underhanded motion. Splitting the gobbo’s face, the axe buried deep in the creature’s skull. The other dove from the vat, arms scrambling for a weapon. Adran led his movement, a soft “tsk” of disdain for their choice as the arrow sailed true, spearing the skinny beast, and knocking it aside. Malark was moving before the goblin stopped sliding, slicing down in a sweeping overhand sword stroke, cleaving the goblin in two.

“Find bad greenskins.” He spit on the dead creature and turned to stalk out of the room.

Adran rummaged through the pile of clothing and equipment, fishing a few coins from the pile. Rejoining the others he spoke, “We gave them a chance, Malark, and that is honor.”

Lia and Seraphina were already at the next door, listening for signs of danger. Erky movement was slow, his fear and discomfort evident to the rest of the small party. He stopped, looking at the other doors in the long hallway.

“What if, and begging yer pardon, but what if one of these rooms is just full of goblins? Or worse.”

Seraphina turned, and gave him a broad, kind smile. “Then we let Mr. Malark really go. Point him at the goblin crowd, and turn him loose. You’ll see, you’ll be fine, just fine. Can you open this door? Someone is inside, and it’s not the bad man.”

Erky looked up at Malark, sizing him up. Sighing, he moved to open the door, mumbling “Wasn’t meant for this.”

Drawing her bow, Seraphina nodded. When Erky pulled the door open, the two ladies stepped into the opening, arrow and bolt searching for targets. The square room was similar in dimensions to the others they had searched in this hall. Torches hung from the walls. Sputtering flames cast light across several tables and benches. Shelves were crowded with jars and loose papers. “Right” was all Lia said as they both saw a pair of goblins looking at a huge rat tied to the heaviest bench. Looking up when the door swung open, one of the goblins screamed, his face in an ugly snarl. Both drew daggers and crouched, snarling and spitting.

Arrow and bolt were flying without another word. Both goblins dove aside, avoiding the deadly projectiles. Lia set her crossbow down and drew a dagger with one hand while snapping her fingers on the other. Flames flared across her fingertips. Seraphina drew another arrow, letting it fly before the goblin could even register its flight, The deadly arrowhead buried deep in the goblin’s shoulder, causing it to wail in pain. The other charged Lia, dagger slicing from side to side. Blocking one thrust with her own blade, she tossed fire into the creature’s face, blinding it and charring its skin. Seraphina stepped up, swinging her bow with both hands, smacking her foe in the face, snapping his head back. She kicked it, boot connecting in the tender bits, causing another yelp of pain before she drew another arrow, stabbing it in the eye, killing it. Lia dodged a dagger slash, then stabbed the blind goblin in the throat, black-green blood spilling across her hand. Slicing the dagger to one side, she parted its neck, dropping her foe.

Scanning for more threats, the two approached the bench. A huge, bloated rat was tied down. Rough, woody protrusions covered its body. Growing everywhere, one massive growth covered its face, eyes hidden behind the gnarled tumor. It wailed and gnashed its teeth, struggling at the bonds holding it tight. Lia looked at Seraphina for just a second before plunging her blade into the struggling creature. With a hissing gasp, it expired, sagging under the weight of the many tumor-like growths.

“Adran?” Lia’s face was a grimace of disgust, “come look at this. It’s…. Actually, I don’t know what it is.”

Seraphina was looking around. Several jars held similar woody growths suspended in liquid. A few pieces of material had been carved off the rat and were lying next to open jars. Sniffing one, she looked back at Lia, “Some sort of alcohol.” She noticed a crystal vial, a carved stopper in place, on a table in the rear of the room. She moved to pick it up. Holding it up, she looked at the swirling contents. Shrugging, she tucked it into a pouch. Turning, she saw Adran looking at the dear rat in disgust.

“Dagger, please?” he absently reached for Lia’s dagger before poking and prodding the dead creature. “Curious. I’ve seen creatures spout growths similar to these. Though they are usually fleshy, not so…”

“Tree like?” Lia asked. Watching the blade tip poke at the tumors.

“Something like that.”

“Erky mentioned a tree. Do you think this is related?”

“Possibly. The tree had a name, though I do not recall hearing it before. Have you?”

“Sorry, you are the nature guy. Trees are trees to me.”

“You may want to keep that opinion to yourself should you ever encounter a treant. Your opinion, and your strange fascination with fire should not be shared with woodland denizens.”

“Treant?” Lia cocked her head, lips pursed, “is that one of those talking trees Granma‘am was always talking about?”

“Talking tree?” Adran made a clicking tsk sound before replying. “And never, ever, refer to a treant as a ‘talking tree’, that might very well be your last utterance, friend. Treants are the wisest and most powerful of the Sylvan spirits that walk Faerûn. And some of the oldest living creatures. Was your grandsire of Pure birth?”

“Pure birth.” Lia’s eyes flashed purple, fire playing across her fingertips. Growling her reply “MY birth was pure. You pure birthed Tel’Quessircan go Karshoj ardahlominak.” The last vocals were guttural and harsh. Venom dripping from every syllable. Her hands turned to flame that she flung at the dead rat before stalking off, muttering more deep, guttural words.

“What in Yondalla’s name did you say to her?” Seraphina had been searching the various shelves and tables while the other two spoke.

“I…” Adran held his tongue for a moment. “I think I might have offended her. I meant no disrespect.”

“Might have? Mr. Elf, have you never seen an offended woman? Of any race? You most definitely offended Ms. Lia. Deeply. I have no idea what she said, but I sure know what she meant.”

“I…” Adran started to speak, then held his tongue. Watching the flames consume the dead, bloated rat, he sheathed his sword and rushed out of the room.

Lia stormed out, scooping up her crossbow and drawing the string back before looking at Malark with her dangerous, violet eyes. “You, next room, now. I want to kill the elf, but a goblin will have to do.” Laying a bolt in place she stomped across the hall.

Malark smiled, a real smile, wolf-like and predatory. Thinking to himself, “This one Malark like. Angry. Hate greenskins.” Following close on her determined steps.

The hammering noise was coming from behind the door they approached. Lia didn’t even look to see if Malark followed, ripping the door open and shouldering her crossbow in one swift movement. Letting the bolt fly, she reached her hand out, flames flashing from fingertips and screaming in anger “Aaaarrrrghhhh!!!!”

Malark was looking over her shoulder as both bolt and flame hit a pair of goblins hammering on a dented breastplate. Before he could react, two bolts of brilliant electricity arced from Lia’s outstretched hand, blasting the injured goblins across the room. Electricity sparked and danced across every metallic object in the room, metal glowing red hot with the surge of power. The stink of ozone poured out; the very air ripped apart.

“Not leave anything for Malark to kill,” the big man sadly moped, staring at the damage inside.

Lia glared up at him. Eyes still violet, flames forming in her free hand.

“Just say.” Malark shrugged and smiled his weird grimace-smile. “Kill them good. Dead dead goblins.”

Lia, closed her fist, the flame wreathing her hand, then sighed, letting the flame flicker out. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to…”

“Lose control?” Adran called from across the room. “Your power isn’t hereditary, is it? It’s the stuff of chaos, wild and unpredictable. You never asked for this. Did you?”

“NO!” Lia screamed across the hall, “I NEVER wanted any of this!” Her hands were wreathed in flames and she began to float, inching off the ground. “I didn’t mean to kill them. I didn’t ask for these… powers.” She was shaking, through from anger or fear or something else the others could not tell. “It happened. I couldn’t control it. And then they were gone.” She let out a sob, the flames winking out, then fell into a heap on the floor.

Seraphina looked at Adran, then rushed to Lia’s side, kneeling over her, arms encircling the sobbing woman. Her face close to Lia’s she whispered and soothed.

Malark looked embarrassed, unsure of what to do. He looked at the two women, then at Adran. Shrugging his shoulders he murmured under his breath, “Kill greenskins. Make Malark happy.” Before heading to another door. Adran put out his hand to stop him, then sighed, also unsure of what to do.

Erky had backed off when Lia first stormed across the hall. He was peering from behind a column, nervous and fearful.

Malark ripped open another door and disappeared for a few minutes. Adran watched the two others for a long minute, then followed the big man into a room full of barrels and crates. Malark was smashing arrows and javelins, breaking handfuls of them over his knee. “No greenskins. None left for Malark to smash. Only…” crack, more arrows broke, “break things. Hate goblins. Kill them all.”

Adran backed out of the room, content to let the man burn off steam while Lia and Seraphina were still huddled on the floor. He walked over and picked up her discarded crossbow, sitting down and holding it in his lap. His head was down, looking at a crack in the stone, wondering if he could make this right, and mend the unintended slight.

He sat and thought, his mind going over their exchange and he reaction. Elves and their half-blood kin had always had their issues. True, many elves took human lovers freely, and reveled in their offspring. Others took an indifferent approach, to each their own, as the saying went. Some, however, took offense at the mixing of Tel’Quessir blood with any other. To those few, a half-blood was an abomination. Adran had never had any distinct feelings about the issue, and surely, he never saw those of mixed ancestry as bad. Lia, though, she must have been an outcast in her own family. When her powers manifest, something tragic had happened. Something she was blamed for. A deep hurt, scars leaving their mark on her soul and psyche. Looking up, he saw Lia sitting up. Seraphina still knelt next to her; their hands clasped. He sighed, whispering a brief prayer to Mielikki, Lady of the Forest, before speaking.

“I meant no disrespect, Lady Lia. I merely inquired about your grandsire, since treants have retreated from contact these last centuries. And even when they were close, the deigned to speak mostly with those of pure Tel’Quessir birth. The Gods know why, or how they even tell. To all our friends here, you are of pure elven blood. I wasn’t sure myself, until…”.

Seraphina interrupted, “Until he misspoke Lady Lia. Right Mr. Elf, until you misspoke?”

Adran nodded, a solemn look on his face. “Until I offended you. I misspoke, I meant nothing by it. I only inquired.”

Wiping tears from her cheeks, Lia glared at Adran. “Granma’am hated me from my birth. Father tried to force her to treat me the same as the others. She never did. The only time I didn’t feel willfully excluded was when she spoke of the Elder Years, and of our history. Too proud to admit that her history was my history, those were only times she didn’t shoo me away. I heard father call her an Eldreth Veluuthran once, though he never explained what that was. She hated me, and banished me once they were gone. If I find her, I will kill her.” Her eyes flashed violet again, deep purple and specked with orange.

Adran whispered a low oath when Lia said ‘Eldreth Veluuthra’. Waiting for her to finish, he nodded. “If she was, she was of a despicable sect of supremacists devoted to driving all humans from Faerûn. The Eldreth Veluuthra were a hateful, shameful sect. Their acts were always in secret, and always ended in death.”

“They ‘were’? Are they gone?” Lia sat straighter. Eyes slowly fading from violet to brown.

“Maybe. Maybe not. They never held much sway. War with all humans was unwinnable. After the Retreat, they made a few more attempts at power, but have been quiet, at least along the Sword Coast.”

“They hate their own kin, because of our human blood.”

“I have no idea, mi’ lady. I know of them; I never knew any personally. I swear, by Corellon’s Ire, I meant no offense.”

Lia sneered at the elf, then climbed to her feet. “Sure, you didn’t. No one ever does. Give me my crossbow.” Snatching it from his hands, she stalked off, back towards the fungal garden.

Seraphina looked between Lia and Adran, not sure what to do. She was biting her lip, and looked like she might cry.

Erky was still hiding behind the column, looking very eager to be anywhere else.

I commissioned art for three of the four characters, and here they are! Hope you like a first view of Malark, Lia, and Seraphina.

The Four- Chapter Eight: The False King

I realized much too late that a newcomer to my blog will have trouble figuring out what order to read these stories. From here out there will chapters along with titles. Hope you enjoy this installment.

Hours later the party ate a small meal and readied themselves for more exploring. Cinching her bedroll tight, Seraphina shouldered her pack and picked up her bow. She watched Erky swipe left and right with his dagger, mimicking Adran’s blade strokes. Malark was already pulling the wedged pitons from one of the doors. They had decided to leave one door blocked, and figured the door with the trap was the better bet. Any attempt to batter the door should trigger the trap and at least injure their enemies.

Lia was pacing. Nervous energy building in her. She was tossing a ball of flame from hand to hand, her eyes intense and focused on something far away. When Malark freed the last wedge, she went straight to the door, opening it. Adran started to say something, then shrugged and followed her. The others followed them into a large, columned chamber. Torches were lit on a number of sconces hanging from the columns. A haze of smoke hung in the long room. Flitting from column to column, they advanced to the far door. Four other doors led off this large chamber. Lia was leading the way, determinedly heading to the far door. Pressing her ear to the door, she stepped back almost immediately.

“Noise. Lots of noise. Voices. Banging. That room is full.”

Looking at the three closest doors, Adran pointed to his right. “Always go right.”

“Why?” Seraphina looked perplexed.

“So, you go in a circle instead of wandering.”

“We’ve gone left plenty.”

“Maybe. I feel like right is the way to go.”

“Malark?” Seraphina looked up the human.

“Go straight. Find more gobbos. Malark fight.”

“Ok, fair point. Lia?”

“Nothing here. She was listening at the door Adran pointed at. “That door,” pointing at the noisy door “doesn’t feel right. There is too much noise there. Try here.” This time she waited for the others. Repeating their earlier entries. She pulled the door open, letting Adran and Seraphina scan, then rush in. Malark followed, Erky close behind the big man. Lia scattered a few of the caltrops she scavenged the day before. Smiling to herself, she flung a bolt of flame to the far door, setting the wood alight before closing this door behind her.

Adran checked right again, realizing the short tunnel led back to the columned chamber. The only other way led deeper into the fortress.

“Going left, I see.” Seraphina pointed out.

“Right goes in a circle. Now we know.” Adran peered around the corner, then waved them on.

Pausing at another door, Adran listened then motioned for Lia. “Come listen. Is the same chamber as before?”

Lia pressed her ear to the door, and nodding after a moment. “Yes. Busy place. A communal room?”

Adran shrugged. “Possibly. Goblin tribes aren’t all warriors.” He pointed to another door at the end of the passage. “Forward?”

Malark answered for them all, moving to open the door. He frowned, then flexed, swinging his sword from side to side. “Sore.” He murmured. Looking back at the others, he nodded and pulled the door open, rushing in.

A wide, circular chamber surrounded a circular, low wall. The wall surrounded an opening that looked every bit like a large well. Sickly white and grey vines spill over the wall, a dim violet light shining from the dark chasm. Torches hung on the walls, casting more light in the open space.

Two hobgoblins in chainmail stood off to one side, surprised by the party’s entrance. Another hobgoblin in chainmail was leaning on a spear next to a much larger hobgoblin sitting on a crude throne, his feet up on a black iron chest. The leader hobgoblin worn ornate armor, fitted pieces worked in a curious shape. Next to the throne was a scraggly bush growing in a stone pot. A goblin sat cross-legged next to the pot, a feathered shaft laying across its lap. Its eyes were closed, though their lips were moving, as if speaking to someone.

The larger hobgoblin’s skin was darker red-orange than the others. Deeper creases and various scars covered his face. Seeing the party enter, he pointed and shouted in Goblin. Those that didn’t understand Goblin got his point. His three guards all drew swords and howled.

Malark charged the closest foe. He was raging in anger, bellowing insults and threats. Bashing his shield into one of the hobgoblins he knocked his foe to the ground, then turned and began to duel with the other. Swords clanging, the foes circled and feinted, breathing curses and testing each other.

Adran shot an arrow at the guard near the war boss. The guard deflected the arrow with a snarl, moving to protect his leader. Seraphina shot an arrow as well, her shot skipping off its shoulder guard. Adran tossed his bow aside, drawing his sword. Seraphina drew and nocked another arrow.

Lia moved to help Malark, shooting the prone hobgoblin in the thigh with her crossbow, catching it under its’ chain armor. Slinging the crossbow, she began to swirl her hands, flames licking across her fingertips.

Malark’s foe mock fled, stepping back rapidly before charging and swinging her sword wildly. Malark deflected the blow, and slashed a deep cut across the hobgoblin’s arm in return. The prone foe scrambled backwards, away from Lia, trying to regain his footing, grabbing the wall of the well to pull himself up.

The last guard charged Adran; sword held high. He slashed and parried in a frenzy, only managing a slight cut on Adran. Grinning a wicked smile, he growled out “Elf flesh for dinner!”

Shouldering his way past the guard, the leader howled a challenge to the elf. Adran finally recognized the Hucrele crest worked into the chest pieces. A large signet ring glinted on the leader’s hand as he flashed his blade down. Barely blocking the stroke, Adran grunted with the effort.

Seraphina loosed one more arrow before drawing her blades. The arrow flew straight and true, her target was distracted watching his leader duel Adran. Catching him in the eye, the arrow pierced deep, killing it outright. Snarling at the halfling, the leader drew his sword back, readying a crushing blow. Adran slipped his own sword low, then up in a blinding fast stoke. His blade cut through a weak point, slashing the leader. He howled something that sounded like a command after feeling the blade’s bite.

Malark shield bashed his foe’s sword aside, slashing his sword down in a fierce stroke, parting chain and burying the blade deep in the hobgoblin’s chest. Backing away from the blade, the hobgoblin stumbled when her feet met the well wall. Malark sensed her peril, and rushed in, shield up, knocking her over the wall and into the well.

Lia flung a bolt of flame at her foe, scorching his skin, but not wounding him. Her eyes flashed violet, burgeoning power building in her. She danced back, watching her foe ready a charge. He bellowed, then sprinted at her. Swinging his sword, his charge was reckless, footing unsure. He stumbled when he swung, missing Lia entirely. She used his misfortune to cast another fire bolt, this time catching him in the face, burning and nearly blinding him. Her mouth was curled in a cruel smile as she blasted him again, killing the beast.

Adran and the leader were clashing blades, trading light cuts, but neither able to gain an advantage. Slipping in with nimble quickness, Seraphina slashed her twin blades in a flurry of strokes before darting away. Blood ran from the multitude of cuts she gave the hobgoblin leader. Worried now, he shouted something in Goblin again, looking briefly at the seated goblin. Backing up, he yelled louder, seeming to head for another door.

“Parley!” He finally shouted. “Parley!” He was reaching for a pouch at his belt, pulling a small vial of red liquid from within.

Adran lowered his sword slightly and Seraphina dropped her guard. Lia’s fingers were glimmering, wreathed in flames. Only Malark reacted to the call for parley, hurling a javelin that skewed the leader in the throat. Dropping the vial and his sword, he grabbed at the wound, pulling the javelin free, gurgling and coughing blood. The ‘shrub’ in the pot leapt free, hissing and slashing, charging at Adran. Lia casually flicked her fingers and blasted the shrub, causing it to burst into flames. Adran smashed the flaming bush aside, the creature falling to the ground and burning into ash.

All four were breathing hard, the fury of the fight catching up. The seated goblin opened her eyes as the hobgoblin leader fell to his knees. Pointing a finger at the leader, she spoke a few words and a mote of black energy flew from her fingertip to pierce the hobgoblin chief. His life force spent; he fell over without a sound.

“Bad man. Very bad.” Spoke the goblin as she got to her feet. “No fight with you,” she added, bowing low.

Malark rose to his full height, fury still in his eyes. Adran raised a hand, “Peace, brother warrior. Perchance we can negotiate a peace between these goblins and the kobolds.”

Growling, Malark stared at the elf. Flexing, he glanced at the goblin, then back at Adran. “Kill. Them. All.” His voice was low, dangerous and vengeful.

“Stay your sword. For now. Please?” Seraphina had her hand resting on the big human’s sword grip. “We aren’t finished here. We can’t fight them all.” She winked, and whispered “Not yet.” Lowering his sword, Malark finally nodded.

Turning to the goblin, Seraphina pointed her sword. “No fight with you, IF,” she emphasized, “If you cease your attacks on the kobolds. They have as much right as you to exist.”

The goblin sighed, looking at each of the four adventurers before responding. “If we stop our war with the kobolds, you leave my tribe in peace?”

Stepping in front of Malark, Seraphina answered. “We will. But, if we find out you have broken our peace, my big friend will kill you all.”

Bowing low, the goblin backed away, gripping the door handle before adding, “It will be so” and disappearing into a dimly lit chamber.

Adran moved to the fallen hobgoblin. Slipping the ring off his finger, he rummaged through the dead chief’s pouches. Shaking the fallen potion, he took a drink and recapped it. “Finish this, Malark, you need your strength still.”

Malark caught the tossed vial, opened it and drained it. “Finish all this. We go down.”

Nodding, Adran was looking at a black iron key. He knelt in front of the chest and unlocked it carefully, flipping the lid back revealed a stash of gold coins. “Fill your purse with this Lady Seraphina. This will keep us all fed and housed.” He dipped his hands in the coins, lifting them and letting them clatter down.

Lia was moving from body to body. Lifting a few coins from each. “Not likely these two bought this jewelry” she snickered and she held up a set of moonstone earrings and matching necklace. “Fancy jewels for hobgoblins.” Pocketing the jewels, she began cutting the leather straps of the hobgoblin’s chain shirts. “No sense leaving easy pickings for whoever comes next.”

Malark was looking down into the well pit. His face softly lit with the phosphorescent glow of the fungi growing up the pit walls. Violet light cast his face into harsh relief. His gaze was distant, eyes misty. Muscles rippled under his scarred skin, nervous energy building. He didn’t move until Seraphina touched his arm lightly. He jumped, startled and breaking his distant thoughts.

“Beggin’ your pardon Mr. Malark, but we are ready.”

He looked down at Seraphina, and smiled his scowl-grin. “Ready. Malark ready.”

“So creepy” she murmured to herself, shaking her head and smiling in amusement at his strange customs.

All four stood side by side, looking into the gaping well. The fungi lit the walls, stretching down fifty feet or more. The bottom was lit by the same strange fungi, deep shadows hiding any detail. Listening carefully, they heard nothing but the soft sigh of a gentle breeze. Cool and damp, the air moved in a whisper.

“More than dungeons down there” Seraphina said, her voice soft and matter-of-fact.

“Oh?” Lia replied

“The wind. Must be caves down there. Big ones that open into the Underdark, and probably other places, too. Living underground and all.” Seraphina blushed, shrugging in modesty.

Malark reached his hand to Seraphina. “Carry little friend. Ride Malark.”

Seraphina smiled and grabbed his huge forearm with both hands, letting him sling her up to sit atop his pack. Grabbing hold of the thick straps, she giggled. “Tallest one now!”

Malark barely let her get settled before throwing his leg over the edge and beginning to climb down. The others quickly followed. All save Erky, the travel-worn halfling. He looked over the wall, into the dark, then back at the door leading to his former goblin captors. Several glances back and forth steeled his resolve. He had a chance with his new friends. He had none with the goblins. Grasping handfuls of fungi tendrils, he hoisted himself over the lip and began following the rest of the small party down.

The well shaft opened into a large square chamber. Ropes of fungi dangled from the ceiling to the floor of the forty-foot-high chamber. The climbers let themselves down the thick, twisted fungal vines until they stood in a forest of mushrooms, fungi, and blighted, pale plants. Two hunched figures tended this underground garden.

They seemed unfazed by the climbers. Until they stood in the fungal garden. When they set foot in the damp soil, the two figures turned baleful eyes on the five newcomers. Looking up caused ragged hoods to slip off weathered, ancient skulls. Raising garden tools as weapons, the skeletal gardeners charged the party.

Distracted by the skeletons, they almost didn’t notice a pair of twisted blights creeping through the fungal garden.

“More bush things!” Seraphina warned. Lia was already holding a ball of flame in each hand, and was the first to react. She hurled a small ball of eldritch fire at one of the evil blights. Her aim was true, causing the living shrub to catch fire, its dried form flickering and dancing as fire consumed it.

Malark and Adran dueled with the skeletons. Swords clashed with tools, shattering the wooden shafts, before cutting into bone. Malark shield-blocked a weak slash before disarming the skeleton, his blade smashing bone apart. Clawing at Malark, the skeleton was relentless. Hacking it apart, the barbarian cut and smashed until bones piled at his feet.

Adran took a shallow cut from the rusty shovel his foe swung with both hands. Missing a return strike, he parried another attack, then swept his blade low, knocking the skeleton off its feet. Stomping down on the shovel, Adran struck a killing blow, crushing its skull into shards.

The last blight circled the party, feinting in, then withdrawing into the violet-hued shadows. Seraphina drew and fired a quick shot, just missing the vile bush-thing. Lia was holding a ball of flame still, watching for other threats in the large chamber. Erky held the borrowed goblin sword upright, more like a hammer or mace than a blade. He made exaggerated swings at the blight, slashing down then bringing the jagged blade up into a guard position.

Lia watched the other two finish off the skeletons, then flung her flames at the last enemy. The blight ducked the flash of fire, a patch of huge mushrooms bursting apart in flame and heat, steaming rising in the cool cave air. With only the sound of creaking twigs to mark its movement, the blight hurled itself at Lia. Attempting to sidestep the attack she stumbled over a low patch of toadstools, pitching over. Seraphina was ready with another arrow, her aim true. The arrow ripped through the blight, ending its violent attack.

Gathering to check one another, they shared their observations of the chamber. Descending on the tangled vines had taken much of their concentration. To one side, a natural cavern opened off the square room. A pair of doors indicated further passages.

“That door first?” Seraphina pointed with an arrow at a corner door, opposite the cave.

“Malark stepped on the remaining skull, smashing it into bone shards, before striding off across the chamber. Smashing aside mushrooms and pale plants with every step. The others ran to catch up. Malark was in a mood to fight, his anger and rage barely contained. He reached the door, ahead of everyone else, and barely paused before wrenching it open and stalking into the gloom beyond.

“He’s gonna get killed,” Seraphina murmured to herself, running to catch up.

The passed through a narrow tunnel, maybe ten feet wide. It ran for some forty-five feet before opening into a long, jagged cleft in the rick. The floor of the cleft was several feet below the tunnel floor. Malark stopped at the edge. Peering into the darkness, he slipped of his pack, rummaging for a torch. Seraphina stepped around him, looking in both directions, then across the cleft.

“Look Malark,” she pointed. “The tunnel seems to continue over there. It’s like a giant axe split the ground.”  

Striking flint on steel, Malark lit a torch then held it high, the flicker of light casting deep shadows across the cleft.

“Whoa. Look at those holes!” Seraphina jumped down, and knelt next to a round hole seemingly melted in the solid rock floor of the cleft. She ran her fingers along the edge. “It’s so smooth.” Studying the dusty floor of the ragged cleft, she traced a curving line. Following it further with her eyes, she looked up at Malark. “I don’t like snakes much” she said softly. “ ‘specially not big snakes.”

“Snakes?” Lia was standing on the cleft lip looking around Malark and down at Seraphina. “What kind of snakes?”

“Pretty big snakes” Seraphina told her, backing towards the lip. Slipping her bow over her head, she clambered back up to the tunnel floor. “Ten feet or more” she added, slipping behind Lia.

“Don’t hide behind me!” the sorcerer stammered, “I hate snakes!” Her voice had taken a shrill, pitched tone. “Let’s go back. Away from here.”

“Seems deserted anyway”, Seraphina murmured. Looking up at Malark she added “No gobbos back there, Mr. Malark. They must be the other way.”

“Are you sure?” Adran had caught up. “We don’t want to leave enemies behind us.

“Pretty sure Mr. Adran. Didn’t see any tracks in the dust.”

Malark didn’t wait for anyone to make a decision. He stomped off, back towards the garden chamber, torch held high.

“Probably shouldn’t let him get too far ahead” Seraphina was off before waiting for a reply. She passed Erky who was still heading towards the cleft in the tunnel.

“Beggin’ yer pardon ma’am, but weren’t we going that way?” he pointed. She didn’t even pause.

“Nope. We are following Mr. Malark.”

The others had to work to catch up with the angry brute. He was entering the cavern across the chamber before they could catch him. Seraphina saw him hurl his torch into a larger cave deeper inside the rock and begin to swing his sword. Sighing, she sprinted after him.

Malark kicked a huge rat aside and charged a hulking, fur-covered beast. His foe was swing a crude morning star, a spiked ball on a heavy shaft. It was bellowing and huffing at Malark. Another rat charged out of the dark at Seraphina. She stabbed and slashed, mortally wounding the creature. The other snarled, looking between Malark and Seraphina. Before it could decide who to attack an arrow flashed by Seraphina, tearing through the rat, flipping it over with the force of impact.

Malark was swinging his sword with both hands, brutal, crushing strokes smashing into the other creature’s weapon. One. Two. Three. Devastating blows that knocked spikes off the head, then knocked the weapon from its’ hands. Unarmed, Malark made a back-stroke slash, before a last stroke dug deep into the creature’s neck. Blood spewed from the deep wound, flowing across the blade before he drew it free, the pull of sharpened steel opening the wound even more.

Malark spit in the face of the dying beast, then punched, the blow knocking it backwards. He was huffing with the effort of the fight. Blood spattered across his face. He looked down at the dying creature, then back at the others. “Big greenskin.”  He stalked off to pick up his torch.

Lia and Adran quickly searched the area while Erky and Seraphina stood guard at the cave entrance. Adding a few coins to their pouches before they both ended up at the back of the cave.

“Look here” Lia called to the elf. “A tunnel.”

Adran joined her, peering into the dark. “Curves too fast, I can’t see anything.”

“Should we?” Lia motioned slightly towards the tunnel.

“There is a slight breeze from there. Cooler air. I bet it goes deep, very deep.”

Lia sniffed, looking into the blackness. “I don’t smell goblins. It smells of rock and earth.”

Adran sighed. “So many doors, and tunnels, and caves.”

Lia laughed softly. “Opening doors and wandering in the dark isn’t for full-bloods?”

“Not for me, at least.” he replied. “Appears to be a pretty narrow tunnel to be used much. What do you think?”

“I think we needed to find more stuff for him to kill.” Lia was looking at Malark while he broke several spears and arrows he had found. “And soon.”

“Go through that other door?” Adran looked back into the dark. “Now we have two possible threats behind us.”

“And a definite threat ahead of us. Can you handle a druid?”

“Yes?” Adran didn’t meet Lia’s gaze.

“If you can’t, should we just leave now? We have one ring. That would be a fair pay for some tough work.”

Adran didn’t reply. He chewed his lip, and looked from the tunnel to the rest of the party.

Lia held up her hands and made a face. “I mean, you’re a druid. And I have a few spells still. Beyond this.” She flicked her fingers and tossed a bolt of flame down the tunnel. “Two casters against one. Not terrible odds.”

“No, not terrible.” Adran finally nodded. “Through the door? All or nothing, we find and defeat this druid, or we run.”

“Better run faster than me, pure blood.”

Adran watched the little fire burn out before following his pyromaniac companion.

Distractions and Repainting X-Wing ships

Summer is nearly over in the States, and again, my production has been sparse. I have a good excuse, the same one many of you in blog land have. Real Life.

It is a shame the Real Life can’t conspire to paint our models, or finish that terrain piece. Or pieces. I have many in various stages of progress that Real Life could finish any time it wanted to, I won’t complain. This Real Life event has kept me away from my painting desk, my terrain table (spoiled, I know!) or gaming. I’ve been preoccupied and busy, and haven’t done a whole lot.

Not that most of you care about the why, but here it is anyways. My Princess is heading off to college/university this week, and so I have not had the mojo to sequester myself in the basement when we could be making memories. I did this four years ago with my son, and it was tough. He was my soccer fan, shooting, 40K, Bolt Action companion. And now the other half of my kiddos is heading out.

Mornings have been full of Star Wars Rebels and The Bad Batch, and lots of discussions on characters, ships, plots and future stories in our favorite galaxy far, far away. She gets Star Wars, and knows as much if not more, than I do. She has a phenomenal memory for characters and traits and plots. So, we sit and watch and I complain because I am not to the end yet, and she smirks because she is all caught up and knows what comes next. We laugh, and sometimes cry, miss characters lost, futures that won’t be, and all of the story that is Star Wars. Time well spent.

Evenings have been spent watching Supernatural and sharing Daredevil (the tv series) with her and my wife. Or rewatching favorite movies. After watching Revenge of the Sith my wife looked over at us and said “you know you talked through the entire movie, right?

Of course, we did. We talked about Anakin and Padme, and Obi-wan and Satine. And Corky. And Mandalorians, Mandalore, The Scouring and how it fits into the timeline. We discussed who was where and when. She kept trying to figure out Clone commanders and lamenting the death of all of her favorite clones. Fives will never be forgotten. We enjoyed Yoda in all his saber-flashing glory. Of Anakin’s fall. Hope lost. Sadness. Misery. And the twins. All of it.

And every day that passed brought me closer to the day I’ll help her set up her dorm room, and make the 1600-mile trek home. Without my Star Wars and DnD buddy. Watching Andor will not be the same. Nor will watching whatever is next. She is a next-level fan and very few around me can match her knowledge and enthusiasm.

No one really warns you about this when you have kids. Eighteen years is a long time in the future, right?

Hardly enough time at all.

College. Post grad work. Marriage. A job. She has so many things to look forward to, and her future is incredibly bright.

Mine is just a little dimmer without her light on the couch next to me whenever we want to put on a bit of Star Wars. And it is gonna be hard to deal with.

She is a busy kid, and there were times when I did have a few minutes to myself. I did get a couple things done. Mostly a couple repaints of ships for the game X-Wing. I found a YouTube channel by a chap named Jay Adan. He repaints X-Wing ships, and does a fine job of it. Two of his videos inspired me to make my own attempts. I ordered a couple used (i.e., cheap) ships off eBay or used model sites and got tucked in. Here are the results.

First is a partial repaint of a TIE Phantom. In the game of X-Wing, the Phantom has the ability to cloak and disappear. Nasty little surprise when it happens. This paint is as it begins to cloak. Painting black over the area to cloak, then some electrical/cloaking effects. Finally, I added a bit of the starfield that shows through the cloaked machine. It was pretty quick to do, and ended up way better than I expected.

Second was a set of standard TiEs painted in a black scheme. Mr. Adan used a mask to make the white Imperial symbol. And he used an airbrush. I used neither. I rattle-canned the model black with Testor’s black spray, then applied white decals I found on eBay, before some dry brushing, highlights, and detail work. While Mr. Adan did a single TIE, I went a step further and painted a wingman. In fact, I picked up several more TiEs and a Devastator to paint in the same scheme. Then I can field a unique squadron in a custom paintjob. I think the effect will be quite stunning when the group is finished.

The last ship is a Y-Wing that came originally in the Scum faction paint scheme from the Most Wanted box. The ship was mostly a light cream of tan with some parts in a coppery color. I added a blue over parts, repainted the astromech, and used a dark wash to dirty it up. Y-Wings are all over the place on the secondary marked and I wanted one that looked cobbled together from the wreckage of two or three ships.  It looks the part.

Lastly, I dug out a wild west bank I started ages ago. I crafted a base from a floor tile, and started adding a wood floor and the boardwalk around the building. I didn’t get far on this project, and look to finally get this one completed sometime next month.

That’s it for this update. Not a lot of hobby time, but as much daddy-daughter time as I could fit it.

But not nearly enough…

Sad BG out