Courage Found

“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.

“More doors.”

“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.

More trouble, more reward

Malark pushed through them, and illuminated a pair of open doors. “Come. You look in doors. Malark protect you.”

He moved just beyond the pair of open doors, lighting another pair. The others followed him, then Adran stepped into the east door. Lia was at the door, crossbow in hand. Seraphina stood behind the other door, peering around it. Meepo was squinting at the torch, hanging back in the dark.

Adran came back into the passage. “Some sort of cell. Garbage and refuse on the floor. Maybe a nest of sorts. Nothing else.”

“My turn.” Seraphina didn’t wait for a reply and moved into the next room. They could hear her moving around for a minute or two. She came out, a disgusted look on her face. “Oh my… Ugh. Urogalan’s pits that smells bad.” She gagged and coughed. “It’s in my mouth…” 

Adran shrugged. “The other smell had an odor, decay, new life.”

Seraphina walked over to the other door, stuck her head in, then looked up at Adran. “You, Mr. Elf, have a strange sense of ‘odor’, that room is just as bad!”

Lia laughed. “And to think, you, a gold elf, are not bothered by the stench of decay.”

Pursing his lips, Adran was quiet for a bit. In the silence Malark leaned in to sniff the cell. He retched and blinked his eyes, his face a grimace.

“Pig. Room smell like pig.”

Lia had tears in her eyes now. “Even…” She tried to say. She was stifling a laugh and couldn’t continue.

Adran looked at the others. “It is true, I was raised in the Elven Court. However, decay is the breath of life. Without decay, nothing grows anew.”

“Don’t mean decay isn’t a horrible smell.” Seraphina wrinkled her nose and spit. “It’s still in my mouth.” She went to the next door, ahead of the others. Before she even went in, she turned back, “Stinks here too.” Sticking out her tongue, she disappeared.

Malark moved up to the door she went into just as a hiss and a squeal erupted from the space beyond. They could hear a scrabbling and violent fight. Before anyone could react, the squealing abruptly stopped and Seraphina stuck her head out.

“Big rat. Horrible smell.”

Malark turned on his heel, swinging his blade fast and low. He sliced another rat clean in half, catching the rat mid-leap. “More rats.”

They party cleared the last two cells, killing another rat. Six cells, all refuse-filled, and the only sign of the adventurers was a disabled trap beyond the last two cells. A pit trip was wedged open with several pitons. A small T was marked in yellow chalk.

“You think?” Seraphina was examining the trap, stepping carefully on the edge.

“Possible. Probable.” Adran stepped around the opposite side, looking into the next chamber.

Lia ran and jumped across the trap, jostling the bolt from her crossbow when she skidded to a landing. Scooping it up, she laid it back in the groove. Malark followed Seraphina, stepping into the room and avoiding the disabled trap. They spread out, covering the room and gathering at the far side, near a fountain that was a mirror to the one that had filled with the red liquid.

Lia was wiping dirt and grime off the front, searching for another command phrase. Seraphina wandered over to look at another door that was just ajar. Adran looked over to see her cock her head slightly, turning her ear to the opening.

She turned and opened her mouth to say something at the same moment Lia read the inscription. “Let there be death.” Her words had barely spilled out when a green cloud poured from the dragon carving’s mouth. Thick and roiling, it spread quickly. The three closest started to gag and cough, backing away from the fountain. Malark threw up, emptying his stomach. Adran coughed and spit. Lia shook her head, then retched.

Seraphina coughed once and backed away. Skirting the edge of the green cloud that was sinking to the floor. She watched the fountain, then the doors.

“Probably shouldn’t have read something with ‘death’ in it.” Lia spit, then washed her mouth out with a draw off her waterskin. Her and Adran were a tinge of green, their skin flushed and damp with sweat. Malark threw up again, dropping to his knees. He was a sickly hue, his skin pale, profusely sweating. The torch lay where he dropped it. His sword on the flagstones next to him.

Adran started coughing again, and didn’t reply. Seraphina spit, sticking her tongue out.

“Gross. Poison?”

Adran nodded. Washing his mouth out, he spit the filthy taste out. “Definitely poison. Got us three.”

Malark retched again. He was on his hands and knees. Spitting and coughing. A pool of sick on the ground under him. Lia knelt beside him, her hand on his shoulder. Looking over at Adran, “Can you do something?”

“Not at my power. Someday, perhaps. Not yet.” He washed his mouth out again. “How are you feeling, Lia?”

“Bad. Not Malark bad, but bad. My stomach is churning and my lungs burn.”

“Mine too, but already I feel slightly better. A weak poison? Or my body is neutralizing the toxin.”

Lia nodded, “I don’t feel as bad as at first. Our big friend here though…” She shook her head.

“Malark not dying.” He spit and got up to his knees, reaching for his waterskin. He rinsed and spit several times. “Weak. Wolf eat bad meat.” He drank a little, but threw up again.

“Wait here Malark. Wait out the toxin. We’ll check out the next room.”

“Uh, yeah, about that.” Seraphina looked over at the door. “There is something back there. It smells worse than the cells. And there is a soft, um, grunting?” She shrugged. “Like piglets.”

Lia flicked a mote of fire into the dissipating green cloud, and stood. “Shall we then? Whatever is there won’t kill itself.”

The three surrounded the door, Lia ready to drag it open. When she did, Adran and Seraphina rushed the room. The smell was oppressive, making the cells seem fragrant. A huge pile of garbage, refuse and corpses was mounded in a nest near the center of the room. They made out a couple goblins, at least one kobold, and a human in leather armor amid the pile. Other corpses were so decayed they were beyond recognition. Three giant rats burst from the nest when they rushed in. Charging the three, the fight was on.

Lia fired her crossbow, slicing a furrow across one of the rats before extending her hand to blast a bolt of flame into the same rat. Flaming and bleeding, it still charged her. It tried to bite her, but she stomped it to death. Adran blocked another as it tried to attack him. Circling, the rat feinted and mock charged. It was just out of reach of his sword. Mumbling, Adran snapped his wrist towards the rat and a tangle of barbed vines sprang from his hand, encircling the rat. It squealed in pain, thorns piercing its skin. Adran yanked, causing the rat to tumble and slide close enough for him to slice it apart with a pair of blade strokes. Seraphina crouched; blades ready as the third rat charged. It leapt, only to be sliced apart mid-jump, her blades stabbing deep and slicing out.

The three waited, blades up, Lia grabbing at her quiver to load another bolt. The squealing, dying rats awoke something in the midden. A low, grotesque squeal-howl sounded deep in the pile. In an explosion of filth, a monstrosity crashed out of the nest. It was swollen and bloated, diseased and scabby, a nightmare horror. Gnashing massive incisors, it scrambled towards Seraphina. Lia hit it square with a well-aimed shot, the bolt burying deep into the nearly hairless creature. Adran slid a dagger from his belt and slung it, burying the blade into the monster. Seraphina flexed her knees, bracing for the impact of the creature, side-stepping at the last moment, slashing both blades, stabbing the bloated body as she tried to avoid its gnashing teeth.

Avoiding the teeth, the rat slashed dirty claws, knocking the tiny halfling aside. It started after the prone halfling when Lia burned it with a bolt of fire. It turned to hiss at Lia, giving Adran an opening. He leapt, slashing down with his sword in a two-handed stroke. The blade cut into the bloated carcass, opening a deep cut flowing with blood and ooze.

Seraphina scrambled to her feet. Breathing hard, she gasped out her thanks. Adran nodded, pulling the dagger and bolt form the corpse. Tossing the bolt to Lia, he wiped the dagger clean on a bit of rag from the nest.

Circling the mounded nest, nothing else came out. Toeing the gnawed corpse of the human, Adran knelt and began pulling items from his belt and quiver. Dropping them aside, he pulled arrows and daggers, a money pouch, and a small vial with a red liquid. He shook the vial, and the liquid shimmered. Unstopping it, he sniffed. “Healing potion. Good find.” He tucked the potion away, then tossed the coin purse to Lia. “Stash that.” He stopped, then leaned closed, lifting the corpse’s left hand, The fingers were gnawed away, save the middle finger. A stub of flesh and bone held a gold signet ring. Pulling it off Adran looked closer and saw that it was inscribed with letters. “Karakas. Wasn’t that the name of the ranger that accompanied the siblings?” Yanking the dead adventurer’s pack out, he dumped it on the floor. Several torches, a bedroll, a small tinderbox and wrapped ration scattered on the floor. Picking up the tinderbox, he pulled some items out, tucking them into a pouch, then tossed the small box aside. Gathering the arrows and torches he stood.

“We should search this pile. Might have more corpses buried. Or inedibles like coins and gems.” Lia grabbed the dead ranger’s bow and used it to stab and poke at the pile. Seraphina used her swords to do the same. Adran was pulling the other corpses out when Malark stumbled into the room.

“Smell worse here. This place awful.”

“Yeah” Seraphina wrinkled her nose, “it is. Terrible smell. But look!” she held up a handful of coins, glittering silver and gold. “Come help.”

Malark used a javelin like the others, to poke and dig. They spent some time exploring the filthy pile, ending with a pile of silver and gold coins, and a couple nice gems.

“Stinking, dirty work, but rats usually gather everything.” Seraphina was shoving coins into a small sack. “These will keep us fed and in a bed for a while.”

Searching this chamber didn’t uncover any more secrets. Back tracking, they headed beyond the cells and opened a door in a small cross room. It was unlocked, but so decayed and gnawed at the bottom, part of it didn’t reach the floor. Seraphina was crouching, tracing faint marks in the dust.

“Rats. And goblins. Back and forth. Regular like.”

Lia reached for the handle. “Same as before. Three. Two.” And yanked the door before counting one.

Seraphina had switched back to her bow and drew it tight as she rushed through. Adran held his own bow low, an arrow notched. Malark was steady again, though still looking pale. He ducked his head to step through the short door and followed the others.

Lia pulled the door closed when she came in. The others had already done a quick search of this medium sized room. The far corner had a door similar to the one they had just passed through. Seraphina was on one knee looking at the door. Malark was walking along a wall, touching stones and tracing gaps between larger blocks. Adran was studying a faint trail on the dusty flag stones.

Seraphina held a finger to her lips and pointed. She waited until the others had gathered close before speaking in a low voice.

“See that?” She pointed to faint scratches and marks on one edge of the wooden door. Malark squinted, not seeing anything. “There is a thread hooked through a gouge in the wood.” She slipped a dagger from her belt and dug into the wood, slicing the thread. Using the tip of the dagger she fished the thread free. “Hope that does it.” She cracked the door, watching the thread carefully until it fell loose. Opening the door more, she looked into the next chamber, pointing again. “Bell.” She mouthed.

Readying her bow, she was aimed in and only nodded for someone else to open the door more. Lia held her crossbow one handed and pulled it open. Slowly. With a zing of released tension, Seraphina let an arrow fly. Her hand flashed to her quiver, drawing and readying another arrow. Something thunked into the door. Then another something clattered on the wall.

“Gobbos” is all she said as she leapt through the narrow gap, loosing another arrow.

Lia threw the door open, kneeling with her crossbow up. Adran followed, bow up and searching. Malark stepped through then hesitated. The floor was covered with hundreds of crude caltrops, a hallway of points and pain. Adran danced and spun down the hall. His steps are light and tiptoeing, avoiding the little traps spread all over. Seraphina kicked a small space open to kneel and fire arrows from.

Down the hall a crude wall blocked off the far end. Built in imitation of a castle wall, there were even crenellations. “Well,” Seraphina thought, “what stupid goblin thinks a crenellation looks like that?”

Aiming carefully, she shot one of the goblins defending the ‘castle wall’ in the eye, throwing it backwards. Another goblin shrieked curses and ducked out of sight. Adran vaulted onto the rough wall, and pulled an arrow back, then released the bowstring without shooting.

“Gone”.

The others carefully moved down the hall. Kicking caltrops aside, they cleared a path. All four gathered in some sort of guard post. Various supplies were scattered about. A small keg of black fletched arrows. Several small sleep mats. Crude pottery jars and stale bread. A smoldering fire wafted a thin trail of smoke, causing a light haze. A door was open, showing a short hall leading to another open space. They could hear angry shouts.

“So much for surprise” Adran was already heading through the door. “Let’s keep up the pressure.”

All four lined ready to enter the next room. Peering around the corner, Adran pulled his head back when several arrows sailed by.

“They know.” He used the notched arrow to point to the next wall. “Looks like an archery range. A couple effigies full of arrows.”

“They practice?” Seraphina’s voice pitched up.

“Looks that way.” Adran leaned around the corner then hid again. Another volley of arrows sailed past.

“Four. I think. I’ll lean out again, once the arrows fly, we rush them. They are hiding behind a wall like in the other room.”

He looked around again, pulling back just as quick. The arrows hadn’t even hit the far wall when all four rushed out. Adran and Seraphina were the first to send arrows flying. Malark hurled a javelin. Lia knelt, aimed, and careful squeezed a shot.

Seraphina missed with her first shot. She had another arrow in the air before her target could react. Adran hit his target, piercing its clawed hand and forcing it to drop its bow. Malark’s javelin hit the wall in front of his goblin foe. He roared in anger, drawing his sword and angling his shield to protect him. Lia’s bolt speared one of the goblins between the eyes. It crumpled, bow and arrows clattering on stone.

Two arrows stabbed into Malark’s shield, a hurled dagger cutting Adran across the cheek. Seraphina’s arrow caught one of the gobbos in the chest, sending it fleeing away. Malark was vaulting the wall when a bolt of flame caught the fleeing goblin between the shoulders, tumbling it over. Malark’s sword flashed in a long arc, a crushing blow cleaving a goblin nearly in two. Atop the wall, Adran bashed his bow into the skull of the last goblin, sending him to the floor. Malark was about to stab it when Adran leapt down, blocking it.

“No! Let’s interrogate it. See what else is here.” He pulled the bowstring from one of the goblin’s bows and bound its hands. Shaking it awake, he was on one knee, glowering at the bound enemy. Malark was pacing, sword held low, his eyes boring into the gobbo.

Lia was searching the dead goblins. Pulling a few coins from each. Then breaking all the arrows she found.

Seraphina was standing in front of the bound goblin, trying her best to look intimidating. Wrinkling her nose, she finally spoke.

“How many others are there? How many more goblins?”

Despite being bound and defeated; the goblin sneered through broken teeth. Its voice was surprisingly deep. “Many.” It laughed and spat blood. “So many. You all die. Elf man. Little girl. Humie. Elf girl. All die.” It laughed and sneered. Defiant.

“How many?” Seraphina slapped the goblin.

Still chuckling, despite the blow, it growled at them. “Many. Strong tribe. You all die.”

Malark stepped forward, punching the goblin in the face, smashing its nose and knocking it out. Seraphina had a shocked look. “Did you kill it?”

“Hope so.” He stomped on the goblin’s head then looked to the next door, hanging slightly ajar.

“What about that door?” Lia was pointing at another door back in the area that goblins used as an archery range. “Probably don’t want potential enemies behind us. This key might open it.” She held up a large, tarnished key she had scavenged from one of the dead goblins.

“Malark, watch that door” Adran nodded towards the closer door. “We’ll go check out the other one.”

“Wait.” Seraphina looked around. Where is Meepo? We got caught up in fighting.” Her voice trailed off.

The others looked back and forth. “He was with us when we first found the rats.”

Adran was pulling an arrow from his quiver when he looked at Seraphina. “Probably hiding in one of those cells. He never wanted to come along.”

“Still… He was with us. What if something happened to him?”

“Kobalds are survivors. He’ll be okay.”

Seraphina looked up at Adran, sniffed once, then wiped her eyes with the back of her hand. “I hope so Mr. Adran. He was nice.”

Friends and foes

The party approached the final door in the long hallway. Creeping quietly, gravel and rubble crunched under their feet. They approached a door that showed more use than any of the other doors they had discovered. The rusty hinges had oil freshly applied that dripped slowly down the aged wood. Listening at the door, Lia held up one finger. She turned to the others as she grasped the handle.

“I heard something crying. Indistinct, but something or someone is having a bad day.”

Nodding to Lia, the other three readied their weapons, waiting tensely as she slowly opened the door. The soft sounds of a sobbing creature sounded through the doorway. Peering into the room as best they could, Adran shook his head and nodded to Malark. The big human rushed into the room, followed by Adran, then Seraphina. Lia entered last, pulling the door shut behind her.

They found themselves a large, irregular hall. A crude cage had been erected near the south wall. It was smashed open, a wreckage that could not contain any creature. Near it was an altar of sorts, several small items laying on a green cloth. A pit in the center of the room held the charred remains of many fires. Every wall had crude symbols and glyphs painted in a bright green dye or paint. Sconces held a few guttering, weak torches. The source of the sobbing was a small, skinny reptilian creature curled up on a ragged bedroll. With its face buried in the rags of its blanket, it didn’t notice the four as they surrounded the creature. Sobbing, it is muttering in a grating, rough voice. Lia cocked her head, listening. She looked up in a moment, with a raised eyebrow.

“Keeps saying ‘Meepo sad. Meepo miss Calcryx. Meepo doomed.’ I think it is Meepo. I think Meepo is a he. No idea who Calcryx is. Oh, pretty sure that garbage on the walls says ‘Here be Dragons’ or some such nonsense. Written in Draconic. It’s mumbling in Draconic.” She pointed at the sobbing creature.

“What is it?’ Malark was pointing with his sword.

“A kobold, I think.” answered Seraphina. “Reptilian creatures, think they are related to dragons. Silly things. Alone they are pretty timid. In groups they can be trouble.”

“Let’s see if this one can help us. Lia, try and talk to, eh, Meepo. Malark? Seraphina? Watch the doors.” Adran nocked an arrow, drawing the taut string back. Seraphina spun her twin swords, rolling her wrists and cracking her neck. Malark slung his shield and took a two-handed grip on his sword. Lia hunched over the pathetic creature, prodding it with a finger. Voice low, she called its name.

“Meepo. Is that your name, Meepo?”

Meepo recoiled from her touch. He sputtered and bawled, sobbing and begging. Even the three not fluent in Draconic could pick up on the pitiful pleadings.

Lia and the creature bantered and talked for a long time. It didn’t shout or yell, and slowly seemed to calm down. Wiping its eyes, it stood up. “Meepo help. Take good people to Yusdrayl. Yusdrayl know. Yusdrayl tell.” Its speech was gravelly and accented, but it spoke now in Common.

“Who, or what, is Yusdrayl?” Adran asked, releasing the tension in his bowstring.

“Not sure. A chieftain, or priestess maybe. Something about missing Calcryx. No idea on that either.” Lia spoke a few sentences in Draconic to the little kobold. “Calcryx is apparently a dragon, and Meepo was its keeper. And I think Meepo is a he.”

Meepo held up his hands, displaying a variety of scars and fresh cuts. “Calcryx love Meepo. Bless Meepo” then mumbled in Draconic.

Stifling a laugh, Seraphina covered her mouth with her hand. “I think love is a little far.”

Meepo was gazing at his scarred hands and arms with a devoted admiration. Looking up, he spoke in Common again. “Come. Go see Yusdrayl. Yusdrayl help. You help. Find Calcryx. Save Calcryx from bad goblins. Bad goblins steal Calcryx.” Meepo spat on the ground every time he said goblin. He curled his nose, exposing his teeth is what they suspected was an attempt to look scary.

“Maybe we can Meepo. But can you help us?” Adran spoke slow and quiet. “Have you seen four other humans? Like us? With swords and bows?”

“Meepo not know. Meepo Dragon keeper. Only take care of Calcryx. Ask Yusdrayl, she tell. Come. Come.” The kobold scampered away, heading to one of the five doors that opened of this room. “Come! Stay close!” Opening the door slightly, he called into the space beyond, yelling something in Draconic.

“Ticklecorn?” Lia looked confused. “It must be some sort of password.”

Meepo disappeared beyond the door for few moments, the stuck his head back in. “Friends come. Come now!”

“Well?” Lia shrugged. Easier than fighting a whole clan of kobolds, eh?”

“Easier, yes. But can we trust them?” Seraphina was looking wary. “Maybe he just talked his way out of us gutting him, only to set us up for an ambush.”

“Malark kill kobolds easy. Look puny. Weak.”

“I’m sure you could Malark, but I think we should trust Meepo for now. If they couldn’t keep their dragon safe, I don’t think this tribe is a true threat.” Adran kept the arrow nocked, but walked towards the open door. “Shall we?”

The others followed one by one, following the elf into the hallway. Meepo was more than halfway down the hallway, still calling out ‘Ticklecorn’ as he walked. A door near the end of the hall opened, and a trio of kobolds stepped out, taking exaggerated steps out of the room. They held slings at the ready, warily looking between Meepo and the small party. Meepo scampered back to them, rambling and pointing, rapid-fire Draconic passing between the four.

“Those are guards, and they are arguing with Meepo, telling him we shouldn’t be here. Meepo is trying to convince them we are friends.” Lia was looking back and forth, trying to keep up. “Something about giving Meepo to the goblins if he is wrong. I think we can pass.”

Meepo waved to the four. Motioning and yelling, “Come! Come!” before running further down the passage. He got to a turn in the passage and waited for the others. He was bouncing from foot to foot, eager to present his ‘friends’ to Yusdrayl.

Walking slowly pass the guards, the four tried to appear harmless, though all of them held weapons far more potent that the simple slings and daggers the guards wielded. The three guards were tense and scowling as they walked by. Then, as the party rounded the corner with Meepo, the three began to follow them.

“Eyes up, still not convinced this isn’t an ambush” Adran carefully gripped his bowstring again.

“I know. Meepo seems sure. The guards? Not so much.” Lia was glancing over shoulder at the three trailing guards.

“Malark crush tricky kobolds.”

“Shhh, don’t forget,” Seraphina was whispering, “they speak common.”

Grumbling under his breath, Malark glared over his shoulder at the kobold guard crew. If Lia wasn’t mistaken, they seemed to hang further back after his death glare. Smiling to herself, she imagined the huge barbarian going berserk on the weak little reptilian curs. He was right, ‘Malark crush.’ She had to stifle a laugh. This tribe would have to be huge to threaten an angry barbarian.

Following Meepo, they entered a tall, long chamber supported on a set of twin columns stretching at least 50’ into the dark. Against the closer end wall was what these simple folk must have considered a throne. It was a pile of masonry stacked against an older altar. Lounging on the ‘throne’ was a robed kobold flanked by two guards wearing simple breast plates and armed with rusty spears. Meepo prostrated himself in front of the throne, his whiney, but gravelly voice pleading his case. The three guards had stayed further back in the passage. All four adventurers were tense, weapons held loose, attempting to be non-threatening. Another three guards wearing breastplates approached the four, staying in cover behind the tall columns. One darted out to bang on a door, growling low through the door. The door opened and another three guards entered the great hall. Numbers were definitely on the side of the small kobolds. They outnumbered the party four to one now. They didn’t seem overly hostile, yet so far only Meepo was showing any friendliness.

Yusdrayl and Meepo were still conversing in Draconic. They were speaking too low for Lia to hear, and the kobold leader’s face was impossible to read.

Whispering, Adran was smiling at the guards while he warned the others, “If this goes like a dwarf at an elven wine festival, attack these two and capture the leader. Holding her hostage should give us leverage.”

Malark rolled his shoulders and made a face that Seraphina noticed and nudged him the ribs for. “If you think that is a smile Malark, stop it. It’s terrifying.”

Malark looked down at the tiny halfling, then relaxed his face. ‘Better?”

“Much. Geez, you really don’t know how to relax, do you?”

“Malark relax when lizards smile and guards leave.”

The robed kobold shook her head, glaring down at Meepo, and stood up. “Meepo is a disgrace and lose tribe’s dragon. Then Meepo bring you here. Like others, you say you fight goblins, like others, me think you never return.”

“You saw others, like us?” Lia asked in Common, then repeated in Draconic.

“Weeks ago. Four humans pass through. Go fight goblins. Never come back. Then goblins attack clan, steal Calcryx. Goblins stronger now.”

“Was there a man and woman who looked alike? Like brother and sister?” Lia kept asking her questions in both languages.

“Three alike, one different. Long hair, like you.” Yusdrayl pointed at Lia.

“Three alike. One probably a woman. Three men and a woman. That’s them. It has to be.” Adran spoke to the others but was watching the clan leader. “We mean your clan no harm. We are looking for the others. Their clan is worried for their safety. And we are no goblin-friend. If you give us permission to pass, we will see about your dragon.”

Meepo was beaming. Fidgeting again, almost dancing with excitement.

Yusdrayl looked at both of her guards. Neither said a word. She folded her hands in her lap, looking down for a long while. The Four looked at each other, at Yusdrayl, and all the armed kobolds surrounding them. Adran started to speak when Lia gave a slight turn of her head, asking or commanding silence.

Finally, Yusdrayl looked up. “My warriors are too few. If we fight you, many will be hurt or perish in the effort. Less warriors will give goblin enemy strength.” Meepo spat when she said goblin, and grimaced, or scowled again. “Go. Take your fight to them, leave us in peace. Take Meepo as guide. We have a secret way; the goblins never pass through. We showed the others this way, you go there. Go!” she stood and pulled a key from a pouch, calling to another of her armored guards. “Go, unlock the way. Take them away.” After handing the key over, Yusdrayl sat on her throne, turning her back to the Four.

“Meeting adjourned” Adran said through a forced smile. He gave the kobold leader a wave, and turned to the key-keeper.

Lia spoke a few words in Draconic to the guard. He grunted a response, and grabbed Meepo by the arm, dragging him along. Following this guard, the party headed back down the passage they had used to come see the kobold chieftain. The key-keeper never spoke. Dragging a babbling, terrified Meepo along. The other two guards barely glanced at the party, though they all held their slings at the ready.

Crossing the shrine room, the key-keeper led them to an iron-banded door at the far end. He carefully unlocked the door, then opened it. He handed Meepo a rusty dagger, then shoved him through. Making a weird kobold grin, he gave a slight bow to Lia.

In Draconic, Lia spoke briefly. After talking to the guard, she turned to the others. “This is ‘the secret way’. Whenever the goblins attack, they come through another route. They think this way is unknown to them.” Lia shrugged.

Meepo was trembling inside a dark corridor. Hunched and shrunken, he was pitiful. Lia patted him on the head when she walked by. Malark barely looked at the little creature. Seraphina smiled sweetly. Adran only nodded.

“No lights. Not yet. Seraphina, guide Malark. Be wary.”

Adran led the way, his longbow in hand. Lia unslung her crossbow, laying a bolt in place. Seraphina sheathed one sword, and took Malark by the hand.

“Relax, friend, I can see fine.”

The heavy door clicked shut, the key turning to lock them in.

“Not taking any chances, are they?”  Lia stopped, listening after the door closed.

Adran approached a corner, the passage turning to their right. He paused at the corner, then slipped out of sight. Lia hurried after him. Meepo hung back.

Scant moments passed before Lia reappeared. “Nothing. Passage continues. Catch up.”

Seraphina pulled Malark along, rounding the corner. Meepo was looking between the locked door, and the passage where the others had disappeared into the dark. He wavered and whimpered, then scurried after the others.

The corridor was empty, save dust and rubble. Adran was carefully studying the flagstone floor, his steps slow and deliberate. After ten minutes or more they reached the end of the passage, and another door. Rocks were piled up against the door, forming a low barricade. Listening at the door, Adran shook his head.

“No sound. Is this the way?” He looked at Lia, then at Meepo.

Lia spoke in a low voice. “Are there any other doors? Any secret doors?”

Meepo shook his head. He was trembling, holding the dagger in an awkward two-hand grip.

Shaking her head, Lia pointed at the rocks, and then spoke to Meepo, this time in common. “Did you do this? Who piled these rocks?”

Meepo shrugged, mumbling softly. “Meepo only dragon keeper. Meepo not warrior.”

Setting his bow aside, Adran started moving rocks. Lia slung her crossbow and helped him. In a few minutes they had cleared the barricaded door.

Crossbow in hand, Lia grasped the handle. The door creaked open, revealing a medium sized chamber. There appeared to be no reaction to the creaky door. Creeping in, Adran held his bow at the ready, scanning and tense. Lia followed him in. Both swept the room then aimed at another door across the chamber. It was directly across from the one they had just opened. The other door was cracked open.

Malark and Seraphina came in next. Meepo peeked, then skulked in, staying close to the wall. Seraphina was looking at the cracked flagstones. She let go of Malark’s hand, and crouched down, running her hand through the dust and dirt on the floor. She moved forward a few steps and crouched again.

“Someone’s been through here. Rats. Big rats. Recently. And some older humanoid tracks. Three? Four? I can’t tell. Boots, Shoes. The rats go back and forth. The humanoid tracks only go forward.”

Adran stood next to the open door. Leaning closer, he looked through the small opening.

Stepping back from the open door, he gathered the others close. In a low voice he said “About the same size room. Big, dry fountain on the east wall. Open passage from the north wall. Didn’t see anything, but I can only see about half the room.”

“Malark can’t see. Can’t fight. Let Malark have torch.”

“Is it worth the risk?” Lia looked at the barbarian.

“He can’t fight what he can’t see.” Adran was pensive.

“Any goblins can see in the dark. He is the only who one who can’t.” Seraphina was pursing her lips and looking up at the tall human.

“If nothing else, it might draw out the goblins.” Adran nodded at Malark. “Light a torch.”

Pulling a torch from his pack, he was reaching for a tinderbox when Lia flicked a mote of flame onto it. Sputtering, then flashing alight, Malark smiled his odd grimace-smile.

The flame grew stronger, lighting the chamber. Malark swung his sword, torch in his free hand. He shouldered the door open, marching into the next room. Adran sighed, then followed.

“Big guy is ready to fight.” Seraphina held her twin swords low, smiling and slicing. “Me, too. Let’s find some gobbos.”

Shaking her head, Lia followed the others, looking back at Meepo and growling in Draconic, “Come on, you don’t want to stay here alone, the rats are huge.”

Squealing, Meepo followed on her heels, nearly tripping her. Pushing him back, she growled again.

“Not so close! Just be careful, and don’t get eaten.”

Meepo was trembling. Lia saw his eyes tear up, and felt bad. “Kidding. We won’t let you get eaten. Just stay with us.”

When Lia and Meepo finally stepped into the next room Adran and Seraphina were studying the dry fountain. Made of mortared stone with an ornate carving of a diving dragon was worn and ancient, though still beautiful.  Malark was inspecting another door, heavy relief carvings on the stone portal.

“Lia,” Adran knelt down, “Come see if you can read this.” He wiped dust from what looked like shallow scratches across the front of the fountain.

Lia knelt next to Adran, and traced the scratches with her finger. “Something was carved here. Its worn, barely legible. I think…” She wiped more dust away. “…Be fire? There be fire? Meepo? Come here.”

Meepo was hunched and shaking., but came to them.

“What does this say? You can read, can’t you?”

Nodding, he read the faint words. His nose was scrunched, and his mouth moved soundlessly. After a couple minutes he spoke aloud, “Let there be fire?”

The fountain flashed a dim red light for the briefest of moments, then a dark red liquid flowed from the dragon’s mouth, filling the shallow basin. Meepo squealed and stumbled back, falling down in an attempt to flee the magic.

Adran and Lia watched the basin fill, when it did, the flow stopped. There was a slight odor of sulfur to the red liquid. The pool settled, the surface becoming flat and almost mirrored.

“Dragon’s blood?” Adran leaned close and sniffed.

“Never bled a dragon.” Lia touched the pool with her fingertip, making ripples in the flat surface. She pulled a small flask from a pouch and filled it from the basin. “No time to study it here. Could be useful.” Tucking the vial away, she stood and looked towards the passage. “Easiest way out.”

“Cold door.” Malark was running a hand over the carved door opposite the fountain. “Cold like winter.”

Seraphina was closer than the others, “I can feel cold here. It must be freezing behind that door.”

“Watch the passage,” Adran nodded to Lia and went to stand beside Malark. “So cold. Can you open it?”

“Door stuck.” Malark looked at Lia and returned her earlier mock before she could say anything, “Door locked,” pointing at a keyhole.

Adran closed his eyes and whispered soft words, his hand on the door. “Not locked with a key. Magic locked. I can’t open this door.”

Lia tossed her hair back, “And that’s probably a room full of gold coins. No, platinum. A dragon’s horde. Just our luck.”

“Seriously?” Seraphina looked dejected. “Can’t either of you open a magic lock?”

Adran looked over his shoulder, “I cannot. The arcane is beyond me. Lia?”

Lia looked over at the others and shook her head. “I can’t. I’ve tried, but can’t. But my magic is… wild. Uncontrollable sometimes.” She shrugged. “Guess we need to drag a wizard along.”

“Whatever is back there will have to wait.” Adran went and stood next to Lia. “Guess we go this way.”

Seraphina was studying the floor. “The tracks, the humanoid tracks at least, go that way. I can see where they stopped at the fountain and the door, but then go that way,” she pointed past Lia and Adran. All four stood together. Meepo was close behind.

“I see a narrow room, then the passage continues. Open doors. Another room further on.” Adran was squinting, staring into the darkness beyond the torch light.

Malark led the way, torch held high. They came to a wide, but short, room. The east wall was collapsed. Cut stone blocks and rough rocks in a cascade of rubble. The west wall had a single door. The was so much dust and fine grit on the floor they could all see tracks. Four forward. Three returning.

“Something happened up ahead. If it was one of the Hucreles…” Adran was still looking ahead.

“We find their ring. No ring, no pay.” Lia was also looking ahead. Cocking her head, she added “And I think I hear something. Movement? Digging? Not sure.”

“We need pay. I don’t know about you three, but my purse is about empty. I need some coin.” Seraphina stepped forward. “Let’s find those rings.”