“Meepo not hiding. Meepo not a fighter like heroes.”
Looking towards the sound of the tiny voice, they saw Meepo peering around the far corner. He crept out, timid and shy, eyes glancing everywhere. “Heroes kill bad goblins. Save Meepo.”
He was still holding his dagger in an awkward, two-hand grip. They could see him trembling with fear.
“Stay close, Meepo, we will keep you safe.” Seraphina was looking at him with a kind smile.
He nodded, a hunched, fearful nod. He slowly walked closer, wary of the closed door. Then he stopped. Sniffing. His eyes teared up, and he began to shake.
“Meepo?” Seraphina climbed over the low wall, running over to the shaking kobold. “What is it?”
He pointed at the closed door. “Friends there. Smell friends.”
Looking at the door, then at Adran, she went to the door, listening. Shaking her head, she grabbed the handle. “Locked.”
“Try this.” Lia handed over the tarnished key. It turned in the lock, a soft click.
Adran and Lia were ready when she pulled the door open. Bow and crossbow. They stepped through the door, deadly arrowheads glinting in the light of a single torch lighting the next room.
A small cage held a captive halfling, barely big enough for the small man. He was wearing common clothes, dirty and disheveled. Three kobolds were bound hand and foot, tied to a ring set in the floor. They cowered and groveled when the three adventurers swept in. Meepo was peeking in by the time they realized no goblins lurked in the chamber. He rushed to his friends, sawing at their bonds with his dull dagger. A yelp from one signaled his failings, and Seraphina pushed his hands away, drawing her own dagger and slicing the three kobolds free. The quartet bounded into the shadows, hiding in a corner and talking low. Growls and grunts. Meepo kept pointing at them and shaking his head.
“Excuse me, if you might?” The trapped halfling asked in a small voice. “Erky. Erky Timbers is my name. These goblins are marauders and bandits. Caught me traveling the Old Road some weeks ago. No one to ransom me to, so I think I’m bound for the pot.” He was sad and matter-of-fact. “If not for Yondalla’s grace, I’d already be dead.” Seraphina strained at the bars.
“Call Malark, he can bend these open.”
Lia looked out the door and waved to Malark. In a minute he had bent the bars enough for Erky to slip free.
“Many thanks to you. I would repay you if I could, though,” he looked around, “I seem to be missing all my things.”
“Well, Mr. Timbers, we haven’t seen your things, though” Adran pulled a pair of daggers from his pack, “you might want some way to defend yourself.”
Taking the daggers, he feinted with them. Weak thrusts, his muscles tight from weeks in the cage. “Might not be much of a threat.” He was sad and wistful. “I’m not a real adventurer…”
“Still pays to be armed. These goblins aren’t real adventurers either.” Adran clapped the little man on the shoulder.
“A month you’ve been here?” Lia looked down at the bedraggled halfling.
“Aye, ma’am. At least. Sorta hard to keep track of time.”
“Might you have heard anything from the goblins? About the apples, or Belak?”
“Or another party of adventurers, a woman and two men. Or those little mean bushes. The pokey-slashy creatures.” Seraphina added.
“Oh, the goblins talk. Bragging mostly. Apples? Yes. The midsummer fruit is special. They say it restores vigor and health. The pale midwinter fruit steals the same. Always laughing and snickering about whoever eats that bad fruit. I think Belak is some sort of leader figure. He gives them the apples to sell, though I’m not sure why. He lives down below and tends some sort of garden. The goblins call it the Twilight Grove. The apples grow on something called a Gulthius Tree. I’ve only heard a bit about it. Them goblins seem terrified of the tree.”
“Interesting. Tends a grove, you say?” Adran asked.
“That’s what the goblins say. Though how one might tend a grove underground, beyond mushrooms, I don’t know. What sort of tree grows beneath the earth?”
Adran looked pensive. Then asked, “Do the goblins say who this Belak is? His race or what he might be?”
“As far as I have gathered, he seems to be a wicked old human. A spellcaster, I think. And the pokey-slashy things Miss Seraphina referred to must be his twig blights. Nasty little creatures. Sometimes they come through here with the goblins. Like a living bush, but vicious and mean. Stabbed a poor kobold to death and drank its blood.” Erky looked sad, remembering the poor creature’s demise.
“And adventurers? Did any come through? Did you see any others?” Seraphina looked eager, the revelations clearing up some of the mysteries to this place.
“Aye, I did. Though I don’t think you can save them. The goblins captured them, keeping them here for a bit. Said their names were Talgren, Sharwyn and Sir Braford. Then they took them Belak, goblins said he wanted them.”
“At least we are on the right path.” Adran was frowning, looking off, lost in thought.
“Mr. Elf?” Meepo was standing tall. Dagger in hand. He looked up at Adran.
Nodding, Adran looked down.
“Meepo take friends home. Be brave like you, take them safe.”
Adran held out his hand, taking Meepo’s wrist in a warrior’s grip. “Well met, Meepo. Go. Take them home.” Meepo straightened his shoulders, looking braver than they had yet seen him. He nodded once, then growled to his friends and they all scampered away.
“That was good of you Mr. Adran.” Seraphina’s voice was trembling. “Everyone deserves a chance to be honored.”
“Aye Miss Seraphina, that they do.”
The four plus their new friend headed back over the low, mortared wall. Malark kicked a few blocks free, the shoddy workmanship crumbling under his blows. “Gobbos not build strong. Crush them all.” He was frowning. A new anger in his eyes.
Looking carefully, they noted another door nearly concealed in one wall. Two doors to check.
“Flip a halfling?” Lia casually asked, looking at both doors.
Erky looked terrified. Seraphina laughed. “She’s kidding. Right, Lia?”
Lia shrugged. Flicked a bit of flame off her fingertip and pointed at the concealed door.
Opening the door, they discovered a stockpile of rancid foodstuffs and vinegary goblin wine. Boxes, sacks, and kegs were stack along the walls in the is room. A clear path from the door they entered to another door passed between the piled supplies. Picking through the stash, Lia found a few flasks of oil, stuffing them in a pouch.
“Might come in handy. You know, for burning stuff.”
“Forward or through that other door?” Adran was listening at the door, leaning so his ear was against it.
“Nothing. All quiet through this door.” Slipping a small piton out, he wedged it under the door. “Delay them, at least. Back that way?” He slipped past the others, muttering. “A maze. Too many doors. Underground. I hate being underground.”
Seraphina hid a smile at his discomfort, then piped up. “If you think this is a maze, Mr. Adran, don’t visit a Hin burrow. All doors and passages and nooks. Not very tall, either.”
“Fair warning little friend. Here, though, every door is a danger. Too many doors.”
Malark was ready at the next door. He was frowning, still looking angry. The paleness was passing, his system dumping the toxins in the green smoke. “Find gobbos, Crush gobbos. Find lady’s people.” Nodding to them, he yanked the door wide. Adran and Seraphina rushed through, the tiny halfling seeming to melt through the space Adran occupied. Lia was next, crossbow in her hands. Malark nodded to Erky, motioning for him to go, and the tiny, gaunt halfling slunk into the next chamber.
Finding themselves in a long hall, with a door at the far end, and one nearly across from them, Seraphina smiled, nudging Adran with her bow.
“Yes” he sighed. “More doors.”
Lia was listening at the closer door. Looking over her shoulder she whispered. “Voices. Two or three. Goblins. I think.”
“Mr. Timbers?” Adran’s voice was low. “Open the door, we’ll take them.”
The little halfling nodded, and grabbed the handle. Closing his eyes, he hauled the door open with all his strength.
Adran was through the door in a flash. Seraphina at his side. Lia stepped to the door, loosed a bolt, then ducked aside as Malark rushed through. All three goblins were bloodied before they knew they were under attack. Rolling across the ground, the largest of the three picked up a scimitar and growled at Seraphina, charging her. Malark roared, leaping to attack the nearest goblin. His sword swung in a crushing arc, barely missing the goblin as it scrambled away. The third goblin yanked Lia’s bolt from its thigh and ran to the far wall, slipping through a narrow gap and disappearing from sight.
Seraphina was down, wrestling with the goblin. It was trying to bash her in the head with the hilt of its blade, and she was desperate to avoid a blow. Both hands were holding its arm, straining to hold it off. Adran took two long steps, kicking the goblin in the ribs, sending the creature sprawling. Lia was in the chamber now, firing a bolt that merely nicked the goblin. Screaming in rage, it sprang towards Seraphina again. She had drawn her twin blades and was back on her feet. Deflecting the first blow, she stabbed it through the throat, her blade plunging deep. Sweeping the goblin blade aside, she stabbed her other blade into its chest, grunting as it slumped down, blades buried in its flesh.
Malark was parrying frantic sweeps of the last goblin’s blade. Metal clanged on metal, then he blocked a swing with his shield and swung his long sword in an upper-cutting sweep, slicing a deep gash in its chest. Screaming in rage and pain it ducked under his guard, slicing a cut in Malark’s thigh. He kneed the goblin, his blow striking a blow on the chin, knocking its head back. With a quick return stroke, he sliced it across the throat, killing it in an instant.
All four were huffing, trying to catch their breath from the furious fight. Malark laid his sword down and pressed the gash on his thigh, blood spilling through his fingers. Erky timidly entered the chamber, dagger in hand. Seeing Malark’s blood, he hurried over.
“I might not be much. But I can help with this.” He pushed Malark’s hand away, setting his own hand atop the wound. Closing his eyes, he whispered a prayer and began to chant. Looking down, Malark could feel the wound knit, the pain ebbing away. In seconds the wound was healed. Erky looked up. “Yondalla blesses.” Malark grimace-smiled in thanks, hand on the halfling’s shoulder.
“Care to do that again?” Seraphina coughed, holding her ribs. “Think that one cracked something when it tackled me.” She grimaced and coughed again.
Erky moved next to her, slipping his hand under hers. He smiled serenely, starting his prayer and closing his eyes. “You know Yondalla, my friend. She loves Her Hin children.” Murmuring, a faint glow appeared for a few moments, then faded away. “Better?”
Seraphina stretched, raising her arm above her head. “Much better.”
Adran was peering through the gap the lone survivor escaped through. Inhaling deep, he turned to the others. “I think this is a path to the surface. The air smells fresher. Too narrow for us. Either way, I don’t think that one is coming back for a while.”
Back in the passage, they approached the far door. Malark was ahead of the others, still on edge and looking to fight. Stepping in front of the door, he triggered a trap, the floor tilting to drop him into a hidden pit. He dropped his torch and shield, grabbing onto the lip of the pit, struggling to hang on. The grime and rubble were impossible to grip, and he dropped out of sight. The others rushed to pit, Seraphina pulling rope from her pack. The pit wasn’t deep, ten feet, maybe, Malark’s efforts keeping him from any real harm. He tossed his shield up, and picked up the flickering torch. Stooping into the corner, he held up something small and glittery. Pocketing the small bauble, he laid the torch aside and wrapped his arms in the rope. The others pulled, struggling to haul the big man out of the pit. Leaning and heaving, they finally managed to get him out.
“Many pits.” He looked apologetic. “Look for pits now.”
Adran nodded, clapping him on the shoulder. “A fine idea. You are heavy, friend. And lucky. These pits aren’t dangerous. Some are.”
Pulling another torch from his pack, Malark nodded. “Lucky.”
The trap slowly reset, the panel raising back into position, concealing the pit. A narrow ledge hugged one wall. Moving around the pit, Adran opened the door and stepped through, raising his bow. Seraphina and Malark followed close. Lia was watching the other doors, crossbow in one hand, flames flickering over fingertips on her other hand. Looking over her shoulder, she urged Erky.
“Go. I’ve got this.”
Waiting until he was safely around the trap, she glanced once more at the far doors, and hurried to catch the others.
Ancient, desiccated and decaying trophy mounts hang from the wall all around this large chamber. Not just the typical trophies of huntsmen, at least one cow, a rat, and several grisly kobold heads hung amid the other more common trophies. Smashed furniture and cabinets attested to some rampage of destruction. Adran was looking at a huge spike hammered into the stone in the center of the room. A broken chain trailed away towards a half-circle wall and overturned altar. Patches of ice and frost coated walls and some of the floor. Lia turned slowly taking in the damage and the oddities hanging haphazardly on the walls.
Seraphine nudged a patch of ice with her toe. Mouth pursed; one eye half closed as she thought a moment. “Mr. Adran? What sort of dragon did the kobolds keep?”
“Why?” Adran turned to look at her.
“Ice? In here?”
Realization dawned on Adran. He drew his bow, hand to his cheek as he searched for threats. “Watch out! Dragon!”
From behind the upturned table came a low growl. Rising up on its hind legs, a small winged beast inhaled, then bellowed a spray of frost and ice. White scales, and long spikes covered the dragon. The torrent of cold caught most of them. Erky ducked and dove aside. Lia had barely walked in, still in the corner near the door.
She turned and spread her fingers, throwing a bolt of flame at the dragon. Malark took the icy blast, then rushed the dragon, sword flashing. Shaking off frost and ice, Adran and Seraphina both loosed arrows, then drew swords.
The dragon smashed the table, tail lashing and snapping its jaws. Malark bashed it in the face with his shield, slashing it with a brutal sword stroke. Sweeping him aside with a wing stoke, the dragon roared and swept forward. Striking out at the others with a tail sweep, Seraphina nimbly jumped the spike tail. Adran was not so lucky, his legs swept from under him. Lia shot flame again, flames burning the dragon and enraging it. It turned and inhaled, chest swelling. Lia ran, diving to slide across a patch of shiny ice in the instant the dragon belched another stormy blast of cold and ice.
Rising to attack the dragon, Seraphina slashed at the tail, ducking a return blow. Adran was slow to get up, hands on the flagstone floor, his breathing labored. Malark roared in defiance. Eyes flashing rage and anger. Running across the shattered table he launched himself at the dragon, battering it with shield and sword. It turned and twisted, trying to bite him. Shoving his shield into its mouth, he stabbed his sword deep, opening a wound gushing blood.
Rolling away, he came up on one knee, shield and sword raised. He roared at the dragon, challenging it. Taking a gasping breath, the wyrmling shook its head in spite, opening its mouth to spit ice again. Choking and gagging, a few wisps of frosty air were all it exhaled. Snarling, it rushed away, heading for the still open door. Erky squeaked in fear, curling into ball, the dragon bounding over him and away down the passage into the dark.
Malark started after the beast, muscles tense, his ire still up.
“Hold, friend!” gasped Seraphina. “It’s gone. Let it be.”
Adran was curled up, breathing hard. “It hurts. Oh, it hurts.” His face was blistered and frostbit. All of them gathered around him. Erky took a knee, soothing words as he took Adran’s face in his hands. “Shush now Mr. Elf. Yondalla will bless you.” Murmuring and chanting, a soft glow spread from his hands, the blisters and reddened skin healing before their gaze.
Erky slumped after finishing his chanting, his breathing coming in short gasps. “That’s all I have. I…” he inhaled, “I can’t help you anymore for a bit. Could use a sleep really.”
Lia was leaning over her crossbow, both hands drawing the heavy string back. “I think we all can use a rest. It’s been a long day. How long have we been after this?”
“Hours.” Adran was sitting up. Still looking weak, his face now bore little evidence of the dragon’s breath. He looked around. “Not the best place to spend a few hours, but maybe not the worst. I can’t imagine the goblins visit a loose dragon often. Wedge both doors shut and take a break. Eat something.” He closed his eyes, head down.
Lia laid her crossbow down. “Come help me Malark, let’s jam the doors shut.” They headed to the closer door, and began to work.
Seraphina helped Erky to his feet. “Come on, you can rest. We have plenty of food to share.” They moved away from the doors, towards the dragon’s hiding place. Unrolling her bedroll, she patted the floor. “Have a rest. Here.” She handed over some dried meat. “Eat.”
Adran slumped against the wall next to them. Seraphina was on her knees next to him. “That dragon got you good, didn’t she, Mr. Adran?” She touched his ribs gently. “I think you need a little more magic.” Whispering, she made several arcane symbols in the air, then lightly touched him, palms down. Murmuring, she pressed a little harder. “There, I think that should help.”
Taking a deep breath, Adran nodded. “Thank you, little friends. You both are wonders.” He relaxed finally, opening his pack and fishing out hardtack and a wineskin.
Lia and Malark finished with the doors. They piled some of the smashed wood, then built a little fire lay. Lia snapped her fingers, dropping a ball of flame into the wood, setting it alight. Crackling, the fire threw a friendly glow. Smoke wafter up, gently filling the chamber.
“Might not be able to keep it lit.” Adran was breaking the hardtack apart and eating small pieces.
Looking up at the smoke, Lia nodded. “Maybe not. But fire always helps. Even if for a bit.”
She set her crossbow down, and shrugged her pack off. Pulling an apple out she started eating. “I’ll take first watch. You all took the worst of that. Lucky me, I was barely in the room when you woke that thing up. Meepo’s buddy?”
Adran nodded. “Most likely. I do remember seeing some white scales when we first found him. Hopefully that is the only dragon down here.”
“That was just a baby dragon, huh, Mr. Adran?” Seraphina looked up. “It wasn’t very big, not like the things I’ve read about.”
“Yes, that was just a small one. A wyrmling they are often called. Still dangerous, but not nearly the threat they become.”
“Well,” she smiled, “I’ve seen a dragon, so there is that.”
Adran smiled, too. “Yes, yes you have.” Pulling his blanket around his shoulders, he laid down against the wall. “I think I will rest for a bit,” he murmured to no one.