Art, Artists and AI

AI Art blog article

Over the course of writing this blog, I have often fallen onto using public domain art to illustrate the incoherent thoughts that I tumble onto these pages. As I ventured into short stories, pictures were much harder to come by. I usually needed a very particular image to add to the story, and amidst the billions of images, I was never really happy with what I could find. Unfortunately, commissioning art is out of the question. I write not for fame and fortune, but to document my hobby life and all the things I find interesting, and then toss in a few stories to get them out of my head. So, there isn’t any money in this, least of all any extra money to use to commission art. That said, I have commissioned a few pieces. Just a handful. Four or five, I think. All are brilliant, and the two artists were fantastic to work with and created exactly what I wanted each time. There are many, many artists out there. Prices are all over the place, depending on what you want, how detailed, how many revisions are allowed, and who the artist is.

I choose two artists on separate criteria. The first artist was contacted to create a picture that depicted a stained-glass window. I wanted the piece to use in a terrain piece I have being planning/building/dreaming about for a few years. I wanted a fantasy window depicting a character from Bretonnian lore in the Warhammer Fantasy universe. I knew the artist personally, and saw her create something similar on her own. We set up a contract, agreed on a price, and she delivered this incredible piece of art. When the rest of the Grail Chapel is ready, I will print this on acetate and install it as window, backlighting it with flickering LED “torches”. I think it will be quite spectacular.

The second artist (and honestly I can’t remember where we first ‘met’) was commissioned to create some character sketches for our DnD campaign. The key to these images was price. I needed more than one, so they had to be pretty cheap. I wanted something close to the pen and ink illustrations in the original Red Book for Basic DnD my role-playing adventure started with. In particular, this image by Larry Elmore.

It is a relatively simple image. Nothing flashy or wild. As a younger lad, this image, and the others like it in the Red Book, captured my imagination and lit a fire for gaming that has never diminished.

I was contacted by an artist in Brazil off one of the forums I peruse, and the process started again. We had a discussion, set a contract, preliminary images were shared, revisions were made, and a complete image was delivered. This guy is great. I send him an email with the basic description of the character, he replies right away and delivers a preliminary sketch within a couple days, we hash out any changes and a day or two later I get a complete image. Easy. These are what he has delivered so far. Dynamic, evocative characters right out of our DnD campaign.

In case you are wondering, there is Malark, howling in rage. Seraphina, slyly ready to slice and dice with her twin blades, and Lia, her unique wand of fireballs wrapped around a wrist, ready to deliver fiery retribution.

As cool as these are, they cost money for each image. When I need exact images, this will be the route I pursue. For more images though, I needed something else.

On another forum or thread or Facebook group, I saw some AI images one of the members had created. I was blown away. These images were as good as anything many of the digital content creators were selling as commission pieces. Incredible detail, full color, and a variety of subjects. This was something I had to explore.

My first attempt had mixed, and frustrating results. I tried the MidgardAI. It is utilized off Discord, which is an app I had, but only for following a single Kickstarter campaign, so my experience with Discord was fairly limited. I don’t even recall exactly how you use Midgard. In the open chat you type the prompts with some other command, and in a few minutes you image appears. Also, in the chat thread. You can somehow (I never quite figured that out) upscale and evolve the initial image.

My biggest complaint was that this was happening in a chat thread. Once your image was generated, depending on how busy the thread was, the image was a few to many items away from your initial prompt. When the chat was hot, stuff was appearing every second. It might be mildly annoying, or even perfectly acceptable to some, but I found it pretty irritating. I don’t enjoy chasing stuff on a rapidly populating thread. Weirdly, I did not download the image i created. Or images. I don’t even remember how much i used it before I quit. I think you had one use a day.

What else was out there? With a few searches I next came to the StarryAI program. You can explore other people’s images, and there is some super cool stuff. From Anime to Furries, Fantasy to Goth characters, much of it seems to center on characters. I gave it a shot, throwing some prompts in and getting this as one of my initial images:

I used this simple prompt: Elven Druid Cloak Long Sword Staff Leather Armor

Weirdly, I don’t think of the four images created off that prompt show leather armor. In fact, I think the AI sees Armor and instantly depicts metal. It cannot decipher Chainmail either. Specific limitations, but fairly significant for fantasy characters.

StarryAI has a bunch of settings, and I will not be getting into all of that. The basic prompts and settings generates 4 images for one credit. The above image is one of those four. You can evolve and upscale these images in a much easier manner than with Midgard. Here is one of the first upscaled images I created.

I was trying to get an image for my daughter’s sorcerer, Lia, and the prompt didn’t say anything about a hat. But it created a very cool image.

The only down side to StarryAI is that you only get 5 free credits a day. Surprisingly, once you claim your credits for the day, they don’t seem to expire. On a day I don’t have time to play with the program, I just claim my credits and save them for later. Of course, you can buy more credits, and better access to the AI servers, but I was looking for cheap. Free is the best kind of cheap.

The first images were rough. I spent some time on the Google looking for hints and tips to creating better images. What I really want is the exact prompts some of the best creators are using, alas, none are sharing. I found some helps, though and quickly started creating pretty decent character sketches and landscapes. Some came out very weird. The following image on the right was created using prompts for a female warrior with red hair. I don’t know about you, but I am pretty sure that is a male face, despite the boob-armor. The image on the left is the same prompt, adding ‘human’ to the beginning of the prompt. Definitely a female warrior.

By now, I have created 65+ sets of images using StarryAI. Some have weirdly been so horrible that I  deleted them from the My Creations area of the site. Here are some of my favorites:

Quickly depleting my StarryAI credits, I wanted more AI, and discovered DALL-E. To use that site, you have to set an account and log-in. StarryAI seems to be based of your IP maybe. Honestly, I am not sure. I have a profile, but I do not recall how I started on the site. Every time I go to the site my creations are there. DALL-E gives something like 50 credits up front, and 15 a month after. It is supposed to be more plain language friendly. They claim you just type in what you want to create, and the AI works its magic. I have had mixed returns with DALL-E. Some stuff is super cool. Some stuff is weirdly distorted. Faces in particular often seem to be melted wax, or scary eyes. There is less detail and crispness as well. Of course, it might be my prompts and lack of key phrases to lock in specific features.

Here a few of my favorite images created using DALL-E:

Both programs have some weird issues. Both are hit or miss with weapons. Sometimes the weapon hovers in front of the hand, or it starts weirdly near the hand. Many times, the weapons are not fully developed and don’t resemble any sword, mace, spear or staff anyone on Earth would recognize. StarryAI doesn’t understand Single Story Building, either. Any time I say building, it ends up multi-story. I tried DALL-E and get single story, but if the description says lodge, it might generate an outhouse or shed.

I’ve used both for portraits, landscapes, ships, and buildings For character portraits though, StarryAI wins hands down.

So far, I have only used these AI programs for fantasy art. I am curious how a more pulp or historical figure might turn out. Will I be able to use these to add more art to my short stories? Can I get the generator to produce a Wild West gunslinger? What about an Indiana Jones-type Pulp character? I’ve seen sci-fi characters, but can it do a theme like Star Wars or 40K?

It’s a relaxing game, adding a descriptive prompt and waiting to see what the AI generates. So far, I can’t get exactly what I want. I can’t give a list of details, and know they will be in the final image. Which I can absolutely do with an actual artist. Things like jewelry, tattoos, equipment or weapons will be reliably generated with a human artist. I can even say I want silver jewelry with sapphire stones and know I will get that combination. AI is fun, and much cheaper, but not capable of replacing a real artist for quality work. Is it fun to generate images? Sure. Will I have plenty of images to depict NPCs in our campaign? Absolutely. Will I be able to get every image I every need? Nope. There will always be a need for real artists, taking prompts and descriptions and making revisions until my image is realized.

One frustrating image I can’t even get either AI to generate is a single-masted ship. Maybe I need to say sloop or bark? Off to the AI, to see what comes next.

The Four- Chapter 10: A Reckoning

Malark came out of another room, looking dejected. “No green skins. Only long cave. Long, empty cave.”

“There are no other doors?” Adran stood, watching Lia stalk from column to column.

Shrugging, Malark pulled out a waterskin, and drank.

“Are you sure? Seraphina, was there anything in the ‘laboratory’?”

“Nothing, Mr. Elf. No doors, at least that I saw.”

“Door. More door.” Malark’s eyes lit up. Pointing at one of the chambers he had gone into alone, “Malark remember, more door.”

The group looked at the door he was pointing towards. Worn and tired, like a fraying cloth. Days underground were taking their toll. Seemingly endless threats were putting a tension on them. A constant drain, they were nearing the end of their endurance. Sitting for a few minutes, they ate in silence. Each party member was lost in thought, dealing with the stress in their own ways. Seraphina was playing with her bow, testing the string, picking at the grip, flexing the arms. Malark was kneeling, the long blade he wielded held in one hand, a flat stone in the other. Sliding the stone along the edge of the blade, he made a couple passes, then took a bite of a sausage. Stone on steel, bites of food, he worked the blade to a fine edge. Adran sat cross-legged, his bow across his lap. Eyes closed; his fingers made small traces in the air in front of him. Erky leaned against the wall, nibbling on a biscuit, still holding the borrowed dagger. The long hallway was quiet, save the sound of Malark’s whetstone.

Finally, Malark stood, tucking the stone and the sausage into a pouch. Seraphina watched him for a second, then stood up as well.

“I think Mr. Malark is ready to go.” She stretched and slipped an arrow from her quiver. “I’ll go get Lia.”

Walking back to the garden room, she found her sitting, hunched over, her long hair falling over her face, hiding her eyes. Her hands were folded in her lap, the usual flickering motes of fire were curiously absent.

Getting close, Seraphina called out softly, “Lia, we’re getting ready to move.”

Lia hopped up in one swift move, landing lightly on her feet, tossing her long hair so that it fell behind her head. Reaching back, she split the cascade, fingers flying as she loosely braided her hair. Tying it off with a bit of ribbon, snapped her fingers, producing a tiny ball of flame.

“Let’s burn this place to the ground, and go someplace cleaner, with real food.”

Smiling big, Seraphina repeated “with real food”, her eyes bright and sparkling.

Rejoining the others, they stood back, watchful and waiting.

Erky sighed, getting stiffly to his feet. Still nibbling on the biscuit, he tucked the dagger into his belt, and opened a dusty bottle he had looted from the goblin wine store. “Disgusting stuff” he moaned before taking a swig. Shuddering, he grimaced and took another small drink.

Adran was last to rise. Looking at the others, he nodded to Malark. “Show us the way, our big friend.” Pulling a white fletched arrow, he nocked it and followed the human as he stomped towards the open door.

They entered the armory chamber. Shattered arrows and spears littered the floor, crunching under foot. Malark headed to the far-right corner, knocking a stack of crates aside.

“Here. More door.”

“Another door.” Adran nodded. “Well done, Malark. Erky? Will you?”

Erky moved up, grasping the iron ring that served as a handle on this door. With a grunt, he pulled it open, revealing a short hall, and another door.

Mumbling “more door” he sulked to the next door, grabbing the ring and waiting for the others. When Malark was close, he tugged the door, hiding behind it as it swung open.

Malark rushed through the door, finding himself in a large, long room. Bigger even than the columned hall they just left; three new doors sat closed along three of the walls. Most of the walls were covered in bas relief carvings of ferocious dragons raining death and destruction on various humanoids. Glowing, phosphorescent fungi was growing everywhere. The walls and ceiling were covered with clumps of the stuff. Much of the floor of the chamber was covered on dirt and compost. Pale, sickly grasses were growing in the soft light of the fungi. The closest door was to their left, centered on the end wall of the large chamber.

Malark didn’t even wait for Erky to reappear. Now that they were moving again, his fervor to find more combat was back. Storming through the door, the others heard him roar a challenge.

Adran and Lia raced to the next room, both reading their weapons and scanning for targets. Seraphina lagged behind, waiting for Erky to catch up.

Malark was charging a bugbear carrying garden implements. This chamber was much like the last. Walls covered in carvings and fungi. Sickly grasses and plants growing feebly in the phosphorescent light. Neither Lia nor Adran had a shot. Malark’s huge frame blocking their angle when they entered. Splitting up, the ran at angles to the chamber centerline, trying to position themselves for a shot. Malark reached the bugbear before either could. Swinging his blade in a crushing two handed stroke, he cleaved through a shovel haft held to block his blow. The sword bit deep into the bugbear’s shoulder. Blackish blood poured from a gaping wound. Howling in pain and anger, the creature swung the broken shovel in a clumsy stroke. Malark deflected the blow, spinning on his heel and swing his blade in a sweeping arc that eviscerated the bugbear, spilling entrails and blood onto the dirty flagstones. Another feeble slash from the bugbear was easily avoided before Malark stabbed the long bade deep into the creature’s chest, ending it.

Lia jogged along the right wall, eyes on another door. Adran moved to check on Malark, glancing down the chamber to a door at the far end. Malark pulled a small vial from a pouch on the bugbear’s belt, a reddish liquid inside the clear glass. Shaking it, the red liquid shimmered in the pale fungal light.

“Good find” Adran nodded with a smile. “Looks like a healing potion. Probably will need that soon enough.”

Seraphina and Erky walked along the narrow path in the middle of the chamber, looking around at the strange sight of the glowing fungi and pale, sickly plants. Many of them looked like plants found above ground, somehow growing in this subterranean garden of horrors.

Lia listened at the closest door, ear to the aged wood. Looking back at the others she spoke. “Something here. I hear… sounds.”

They all gathered at the door. Malark was a nervous bundle of energy. He kept lurching towards the door, using all his will to hold himself in check. Lia and Seraphina checked crossbow and bow, bolt and arrow ready. Adran slung his bow, and pulled out a bit of thorny vine. Drawing his sword, he nodded to Erky. The little halfling sighed, very tired of this “adventure”, yet stuck with the others until their mission was over. This door swung easily open, the hinges barely making a noise. Hiding behind the thick wood, Erky let the others enter.

Malark was first through, low growls and tense muscles, scanning for anything to crush. Adran was next, his elven eyes seeing potential enemies in the dim light. A trio of skeletons in tattered rags, raking the detritus and compost on the flow turned to stare when they entered. Lia and Seraphina came in together, edging along the wall to try and get a shot.

Adran acted first, snapping his hand out that held the throne vine. It extended, the vine growing and thickening, reaching out to strike the closest of the skeleton gardeners. The vine acted like a whip, snapping and curling around the enemy, thorns piecing the ancient bone, vines entangling the foe. Adran pulled hard, dragging the skeleton closer.

Malark met the tangled skeleton, a brutal sword stroke smashing through the skull and crushing its spine, the greenish bale light of its eyes fading out. Lia was first to get an angle, letting a bolt fly. The thick projectile struck another of the skeletons, the heavy point smashing through rib and shoulder blade, causing one arm to droop uselessly. The two skeletons charged at Adran and Malark, brandishing garden tools as weapons. Each swung a jerky, clumsy blow. Each missed, the awkward improvised weapons failing to strike. Seraphina let her bow string go slack, frustrated in her effort to attack by the skeletons getting too close to the others. Adran swung once, batting away a shovel, then again to lop ribs off his foe. Malark smashed the torch he was holding into the skeleton; setting alight its ancient rags. Flames flickered and burned, the skeleton opening its jaw in a silent scream.

Lia was blocked by the swirling melee, and held flames in her hand, waiting to strike. The two skeletons attacked again, shovel and rake smashing light blows that Adran and Malark were able to deflect. Adran swung next, cleaving through the spine and ending another of the undead. Malark swept his sword in an upstroke, crushing bone, knocking the flaming skeleton over, the flickering flames smoldering in the dry compost and sickly plants.

The whole encounter was over in seconds. Each of them took a second to search the octagonal chamber for other threats before gathering at the door.

“Whoever this Belak is, he has evil powers. Necromancy? He is a wielder of the dark arts.” Adran was looking pensive, chewing his lip as he thought. “But there is something else here. All these plants and gardens? I don’t know.” He stepped through the door before saying anything else. The other three looked at each other, shrugging in confusion before following him. Adran was slowly walking towards the next door, murmuring to himself as he pulled out another stub of thorny vine.

Erky peeked out from the behind the door, and hurried to catch up with the others as the moved after Adran. Reaching the next door, Erky took up his usual position, waiting for a signal.

“Hey Malark, let us though first, will you?” Seraphina asked sweetly. “You are getting to have all the fun.”

Malark smiled an actual smile this time, looking down in a slight, embarrassed way. “Wanna kill green skins.”

“Oh, I know you want to kill things. And you are good at it! You are just too big to shoot through, and I have this bow, and Lia has her crossbow, you know.” She was looking up at the big man, holding her bow out to prover her point.

“I have fire, too.” Lia added. Snapping her fingers and tossing little motes of flame into the air.

Malark nodded, stepping aside. “Go first.”

Seraphina smiled brightly, holding her bow over her head in mock triumph, the stepping up to the door beside Lia. “Go ahead Mr. Erky.”

Erky hauled the door open, hiding again in the shadows behind the open door. Lia and Seraphina stepped into the room, each one sidestepping to clear the door, bow and crossbow up and ready. Both found a target at the same time, arrow and bolt sailing into the dimly lit chamber with the twang of bowstring. A bugbear howled in pained anger when hit by both projectiles. Malark waited for Adran to go before him, then both stood side by side scanning the chamber, searching for the source of the howls.

The bugbear charged Lia, bloodied and angry from the surprise attack. Unslinging a spiked morningstar, the creature hurled a rake in desperation. Lia easily avoided the flying rake, flames flickering across her free hand.

Adran snapped out with the thorny vine again, entangling the brute. He pulled hard, but the huge bugbear easily torn the vine apart, little drops of blood showing where thorns had bit into its hide. Malark howled a challenge and charged; sword held high. He swung a vicious downstroke, but the angry bugbear avoided the blade. Swinging its own weapon, the creature struck a glancing blow, spikes tearing small cuts in Malark’s arm. Adran closed the distance, parrying a swing from the morningstar, then slashing a cut across its face.

Desperate and hurt, the beast roared and swung its morningstar recklessly. Moving around the creature, Adran and Malark deflected swings, and feinted, trying to find an opening to strike. Lia got closer, the finally flung her hand forward, fingers extending to toss a bolt of sorceress flame at the brute. Striking it in the chest, the flame burned and sizzled, burnt hide and skin smoking and stinking.

Outnumbered and outmatched, the beast dropped its weapon and sank to its knees, the anger in its eyes replaced by a pleading fear. Adran dropped his guard, ready to accept its surrender. Seraphina lowered her aim. Lia was holding flames again, but hesitated. Malark stepped forward, swinging hard and nearly decapitating the beast.

“Not friend.” He spit on the corpse and stalked away.

Quickly searching the chamber, they found another door nearly concealed close to the entrance door. It opened easily, and the compost was pushed aside, showing clear evidence of frequent use. Opening it slowly, the peered into the darkness of a short hallway.

“Short hall leads to a bigger room. No fungi in there,” Adran finally said. Malark pulled the door open, and set off down the hall, holding his torch high. The others followed, quick steps to match his long strides. 

The far wall of this new chamber had a curved wall surrounding a huge statue of a dragon, rearing up, wings flared. Other carvings of dragons covered much of the rest of the walls and ceilings. Some were crumbled and decayed, rubble covering the floor. A darker circle of tile lay in front of the statue, partially hidden beneath the rubble. A door sat in one wall, the only obvious exit. Malark turned a few times, casting feeble light around the room, then went to the door, opening it and stepping through.

Adran sighed, shaking his head and following the human into the next chamber. Lia and Seraphina, with Erky sulking behind, approached the statue, standing beneath the outstretched wings. Runes were carved along the edge of the circular tiles. Lia looked down, and Seraphina saw her lips start to move. With a quick step and a raised hand, she covered Lia’s mouth.

“No. No more reading inscriptions in this place! Do you want that dragon statue to breath fire?”

Lia’s eyes flashed violet for the briefest of moments as she pushed Seraphina’s hand away. The color faded away as she bit her lip and thought about the warning. Looking up at the dragon’s gaping maw, her shoulders slumped and she turned away.

Neither of the women noticed a darker shadow in the shadows, clinging to the statue. Vaguely humanoid in shape, it leaned around the statue to watch them walk away. When they stepped through the next door, it disappeared behind the statue, lost in the blackness.

The next room was library of sorts. Shelves lined the walls full of dusty, decaying volumes and rolled scrolls. Many of the tomes disintegrated at the first touch. Opening cracked leather covers revealed faded pages the crumbled to dust. Ancient scrolls fell apart when picked up. By the end of there search only two intact scrolls were discovered, and a single volume of lore.

“Some sort of spell scrolls, I think” Adran said as he looked over them. “I’ll have to read them more to figure out what they are.

Lia was turning pages in the heavy tome. It had stout covers, crafted of scaly leather. Tick parchment pages were covered in rune script and inked drawings. “This is written in draconic. I think it’s a book of dragon lore. Whatever it is, it is old.” She emphasized the last word, then carefully closed the book. “I bet a scholar or library would pay a lot for this.” She tucked it into her pack, patting it before slinging her back again.

Adran tucked the scrolls into a pouch, turning to look at Lia. “We can figure these out later. Some of the script is foreign to me.”

Lia nodded at Adran, but didn’t reply. They had a careful truce. For now. The hurt of yeas gone by was too strong to forgive his words yet.

Another door opened of the ancient library, and Malark was eager to press on. It was like he could sense the end was near, and the target of their search was within reach. He opened the door and stepped into a small square room; the top steps of a descending staircase visible across the room. A clear trail was visible in the debris of ages on the floor. Door to stairs.

All five crowded the small room. Malark held his torch high, peering down the steep stairs. A slight reflection glinted down below. Like a mirror, or still water. Lia casually tossed a small mote of flame down the stairs to sizzled out when it hit the reflection.

“Not flammable” she murmured, then she started down the stairs.

The rest followed close behind. She stopped at the bottom step and peered into the liquid. Looking over her shoulder she made a request. “Arrow, please.”

Adran pulled an arrow from his quiver and held it over her shoulder until she grasped the haft. Holding it near the fletching, she slowly dipped it in the liquid covering the passage in front of them. Thick moss and wet lichen covered the walls of a narrow passage. Some forty feet ahead another staircase ascended, a mirror of the one they stood on.

There was no sizzle of acid when the arrowhead broke the surface. Pushing the point down, Lia’s hand was nearly to the liquid surface when she felt bottom. Tapping the arrowhead back and forth, she checked along the front of the bottom stair for voids.

“Less than two feet deep. Hard bottom.” She shrugged and stepped into the liquid. “Co, cold.” She gasped when her feet plunged in. Carefully feeling the bottom ahead with a foot, she slowly moved forward. Malark followed her in, staying close behind her, sheathing his sword and reaching out, ready to grab if she stumbled.

When they we halfway down the passage, the others followed. Erky and Seraphina gasped and sputtered, the cold water was nearly to their waists. Moving quicker, the party passed through the wet tunnel and began to climb the far stairs.

Reaching the top, the found a tunnel that extended straight away, then turning to their right. Ahead was a long tunnel. Peering into the dark, none could see an end to the darkness.

Adran spoke first, “I cannot see an end to this tunnel, Or any doors. Malark, stay back with Erky, let us pass on and check for danger. We will call for you.”

Malark looked hurt for a moment, and started to say something before Seraphina touched his arm.

“Meaning no offense, Mr. Malark, just the three of us can see in the dark.” She smiled that kind, warm smile and patted his thick forearm. “Keep Mr. Erky safe, will you?”

Malark had no reply, and simply nodded, a sad look on his face.

“If we find any greenskins, we will save some for you” Lia winked and turned to follow Adran.

A couple minutes later, Lia returned, whispering from the darkness into the flickering torch light. Waving her hand, she motioned them forward without a sound. Malark followed, sliding his sword from its scabbard. Erky looked back down the short hall to the stairs, then ran to catch up as they marched down the long passage.

Seraphina and Adran were waiting by a door when the other three caught up. Adran held a finger to his lips and whispered “Two doors. Quiet here. Goblins arguing at the other.” He nodded to Erky, pointing at the door and added, looking directly at Malark “we’ll get the greenskins, do not fret my friend.”

Erky pulled the door open, the others stepping through, weapons up and ready.

The found themselves standing on a foot of more of soil and compost. Rough-hewn wooden shelves lined two walls, filled with scrolls and papers, a few heavy tomes, and various other items. A large desk sat in the center of the room under a ceiling covered in the glowing fungi. Pale light filled the room, several bushes and pale saplings growing around the room. The desk showed evidence of recent use, an inkpot and quill, and a pile of parchment sheets, many covered with a scrawling, scribbling script.

Adran held up his hand, whispering as he did, “Hold. There is magic here. I can feel it.” He whispered something further, drawing an arcane symbol in the air in front of him. Looking around carefully he finally pointed at a heavy tome wrapped in dark leather. Don’t open that book. There is some magic there, either it’s a spell book, or it is warded, I cannot tell. Not here, at least. And there,” he pointed to a pile of parchment on the desk, “there is magic there as well.”

The others moved around the room, lifting pages and books carefully. Avoiding the dark leather volume. Quietly searching

Lia held up a pair of parchment sheets, holding them towards Adran. “I think these might be spell scrolls. A protective spell of some sort, and something else. And this…” she held up a crude map, tiny runic script and scratches covering a small scrap of parchment. “Dwarven rune script I think.”

Seraphina was kneeling beside the desk, then stood with a handful of coins. “She had an excited grin on her face. “Coins. Lots of gold coins!” She piled the handful on the desk, then slipped her pack off, rummaging inside and pulling out a cloth sack. Kneeling again, she started scooping coins into the sack. Malark set his sword on the desk, and picked up a coin, holding it in the light of his torch. Satisfied, he picked up the rest and slipped them into a pouch on his belt.

Seraphina wrapped a cord around the sack, then struggled to lift it. She giggled and looked up at Malark, “hey big guy, a little help?”

Malark hefted the sack in one hand, weighing the pile of coins, then set it on the desk. He slipped his own pack off, stowing the heavy sack inside, then hefted it onto his broad shoulders. Patting Seraphina on the head he did his weird grimace smile. “Carry for little friend.”

Seraphina smiled back, then looked away, making a face at Lia. The grimace was no smile at all. Lia snickered, trying to stifle her laugh. Suddenly, through a door leading from this study area, they heard a pair of arguing voices. Distinctly goblinoid, Malark grabbed his sword, and started towards the door.

Before anyone could stop him, he flung the door open and charged through. The others hurried after, readying bow and crossbow.

Entering a much larger chamber, this new space had no wall across from them, opening into a vast cavern. A quartet of goblins were arguing and pushing each other, stunned by the sudden appearance of the party. Malark was carving one goblin up before the others could react.

Seraphina shot one through the eye, tearing a gaping wound that gushed black blood. The goblin grasped at the terrible wound, gurgling and staggering. Lia’s shot went wide, and she set her weapon aside, slipping a dagger out and snapping flames to lit in her hand. Adran shot another goblin, sticking an arrow deep in its belly. Malark parried a desperate blow from another goblin, the punched it in the face with his fist holding the torch. He swept his sword up in a quick stroke, cleaving the poor goblin from groin to shoulder. The belly wounded goblin tried to flee, hands holding the deeply embedded arrow, it turned to run and was cut down by another arrow from Seraphina.

Focused on the goblins, the party has surprised by more of the twig blights appearing from amid the stunted growth in this chamber. They sprung out, slashing viciously with claws, snarling indistinctly. Seraphina and Lia gasped and groaned, gashed by the evil bush creatures. Malark sidestepped his attacker, then smashed his torch into it, setting it aflame. He lashed out with a boot, sending the creature flying. Adran parried slashing attacks with his bow, then deftly drew an arrow, drawing and piercing the creature from mere feet away. The arrow tore through the creature, tearing its vile lifeforce free, ending it.

Desperately fending off more slashing attacks, Lia and Seraphina ducked and dodged, making ineffective attacks in return. Lia was shooting bolts of fire at her attacker and desperately swinging her dagger, trying to block spiteful slashes. Seraphina tossed her bow aside, and drew her short blades, batting at slash attacks.

Malark noticed another pair of blights creeping from deeper in the cavern and charged off towards the new threat. Adran looked from the closer fight, to where Malark was swinging sword and flame at the newest blights. Lia’s foe had backed away from her flame attacks, wary and defensive. That gave Adran space to draw and fire a quick spot, pinning the blight to a stunted mass of dry vines. Lia casually tossed a ball of flame onto the immobile blight, setting the entire mass of woody stems alit.

Seraphina finally sliced her foe apart in a flurry of blade strokes, lopping sharp talons, then arms, then the mass that appeared to be the ‘head’ of the creature. Crumbling apart, the thing was nothing but dried stems on the compost-covered floor.

The three hurried after Malark. He was pushing the blights deeper into the cavern with his wild attacks. They saw more of the blights in the shadows, sneaking up on the big man. Distracted by Malark, they weren’t paying attention to the others. Seraphina sheathed her swords and picked up her bow, sending a pair of quick shots as she stalked their prey. Both arrows hit home, tearing apart one blight. Lia turned another into a flaming mass with a careful bolt of flame. Adran picked off a third, running as he did to close the distance. Turning to face the three, the last blight hissed and ran, disappearing into the shadows.

Malark had set one blight aflame, and was steadily carving the other apart when the other three surrounded the fight, and helped him end the creatures.

“We are close. Everything is coming out to defend their master. Be wary.” Adran was looking deep in to the cavern. “There is something there. A great, dark mass. Like…” his voice trailed off.

Looking around, they found themselves surrounded by a sickly pale forest of saplings and briars. Thick stems bore innumerable black thorns. Narrow paths crisscrossed the unholy garden. Ruined walls and a crumbling tower stood above the stunted forest. There was a heavy, evil feel to the area. Oppressive and cloying, they were outsiders in this grove of pale plants.

“Up there,” Adran finally said, “is a huge tree. How it is growing here…” He shook his head. The very wrongness of everything in this underground fortress was hanging on all of them. “We should burn it. It is not natural.”

“I like that plan.” Lia was smiling now. Her eyes had changed to that dangerous violet, yet her face didn’t show the anger it usually did when her eyes flashed. She pulled a vial from her pouch, showing it to the others. “Told you this would come in handy. Get me close. I’ll do the rest.”

Seraphina was scanning the pale undergrowth; he eyes following some movement. “There are more of those blights. Creeping around, following us.”

“I have seen them, as well.” Adran was still staring at the vast black canopy in the distance. “Three, at least. Maybe more. They all look alike.”

Checking themselves, and readying arrows and bolt, the party slowly moved deeper into the enormous cave. Malark sheathed his sword, and pulled a javelin from a quiver over his shoulder. Hefting it, testing its balance, he grasped the haft firmly, a grim look on his face.

The cavern narrowed, creating a gateway of sorts into another space. More ruined walls spread across the cave, with the crumbling tower at one corner. The wall was not intact, several piles of rubble left openings through the barricade. As they approached the wall, they could see a trio of individuals standing near the wide tree trunk, sheltered under the black leaves of its canopy. A bearded man, wearing a dark brown, hooded robe turned and stared directly at them.

Calling to them.

“Come, my worthy children. Come, and worship the true power of this fortress. Surrender yourselves. Become one with its essence.”

He held his arms wide, a strange smile on his face. A man and woman stood by his side, their skin had a strange appearance, though they were too far away to tell why. The man was armored, bearing sword and shield. The woman was robed, the finery of her clothing evident even at a distance. The hooded man was holding a staff and sickle, his arms raised in welcome.

“I am called Belak the Outcast. My circle cast me out for daring to take nature further than it has ever gone. For creating all of this.” He spun on the spot, shrugging the hood off to reveal a wild shook of hair, and maddened, crazed eyes. “I found the Gulthias Tree, and I control its power. I can give life, and I can take it. No one in the above world understands. None are worthy to control this power. Only I!”

“Do not listen to his words. He is a trickster, and a liar.” Adran stared, watching the robed man carefully.

Malark stepped through the gap in the wall, pointing with his torch at the trio. “You surrender. Or Malark kill you all.” The others could see him tensing, muscles bunching in readiness. Howling a challenge, the angry man began to growl and feint towards their enemies.

“Oh, Mr. Adran, I think he is gonna do something rash.” Seraphina whispered.

Three of the twig blights scuttled out from behind the tree, and another trio was trying to sneak up on them from behind. Lia kept shooting bolts of fire at them, setting the dry briars on fire, and forcing the blights to keep a respectable distance.

“We are heavily outnumbered here” she mumbled, shooting flame at another blight, and finally catching one.

“Sharwyn? Is that you?” Adran called out. “Your mother sent us. She is worried about you.”

“Worry not, elf, this one knows her master, and is here of her own free will.”

“Sharwyn? Please, we found your brother’s armor. We know he is dead. Look!” Adran held up the Hucrele family ring, the set stone glittering in the torch light. “He is gone, but you, you can return to your family. Come, come with us!”

The robed female, stepped forward, one, two steps. Then looked back at the robed man. “Join us. Join with this!” she spread her arms wide, as if excited, though her face was a blank mask.

Stalling, Adran called out to Belak. “Tell of us of the fruit. Why do you provide healing to the villagers if you despise them?”

“Ahh, the fruit. I give the fruit to the goblins, to disperse the seeds. From the seeds of this tree are born my twig blights. From these seeds, I grow an army to do my bidding. Deceitful little blighters, the goblins sell the fruit for coin, not caring if it is health or death that they sell.”

“And these two, Sharwyn and Sir Braford? They are not, themselves.”

Looking at the two, now that they were close, they could see that their skin had a rough, bark-like texture. It was sickly grey, unnatural. Their eyes were black pits. Vacant and staring.

“Oh, elf,’ Belak spate the word ‘elf’, “but they are. They are supplicants to the might of the Gulthias Tree. The first of many. Only now are they truly free”

Malark, still growling, moved in a flash, hurling his javelin. Belak laughed wildly as the javelin sailed over his head, not even turning to watch it pass.

“Your threats are weak, and your aim is poor. You all will join me, or die, your bodies providing compost for my grove.” He snarled and pointed his sickle, murmuring unheard words.

Seraphina watched Malark’s javelin sail into the tree, seeing what he saw, and drew her bow back, aiming and letting an arrow fly. Belak watched this arrow flash over his head, a look of understanding finally coming to his face.

“Nooooo!!!” he howled, seeing javelin and arrow piercing a huge frog hiding in the branches of the tree. The frog leapt from the tree, towards the party, arrow and javelin smashing on branches as it charged at them.

Sharwyn held out her hands, drawing sigils in the air, murmuring under her breath. Sir Braford drew a sword, and charged at Malark.

Adran shot an arrow at Sir Braford, but the young man raised his shield, deflecting the shot. Sharwyn clasped her hands, and in an instant Seraphina slumped to the ground. Lia shot the robed woman, a bolt tearing into her, causing her to recoil in pain. Sir Braford and Malark began to duel, trading blows and circling, Malark wielding his long blade in two hands growling challenges in a guttural, angry voice.

Lia turned and smashed her crossbow into a blight as it leapt to attack, blocking its claws, then throwing it aside.

Belak finished his incantation, a sphere of churning flames winking into existence next to Adran. The elf gasped, searing heat burning him before he could leap aside. His clothing was smoking, his skin red and blistered.

Lia ran to Seraphina, shaking her and calling her name. “Come on little one, wake up! Wake!”

The blights charged in, slashing and jabbing at them all. Adran grabbed one and tossed it into the ball of flame, incinerating the creature. Lia covered Seraphina while a blight slashed at them both, still trying to wake the sleeping halfling. Seraphina finally opened her eyes, confused for a moment then drawing a sword and stabbing up, skewering the blight sprawled across Lia. Malark and Sir Braford both had to contend with a pair of blights wildly attacking. For a moment the stopped fighting each other, sword strokes aimed at the vicious bush creatures. Slashing and cutting, they finished off two blights, then began to battle on another again.

The ball of flame soared towards Adran again, he was up and running towards Belak, the ball of flame chasing him. Diving when he reached the mad druid, Belak tried to jump and avoid the ball of fire. Both man and elf were burned as it sailed by, hitting the Gulthias Tree.

Belak was howling in rage. The ball of flame igniting some of the drier branches, and withering leaves as it churned against the trunk of the tree. Looking around, he saw Sir Braford backing towards him, Malark’s brutal attacks smashing aside his shield, forcing him to retreat. His face a mask of rage, Belak spoke a command word and slammed his staff into the ground. A thunderous blast of energy erupted from him. Adran was kneeling, facing the mad druid when the wall of force erupted, ducking his head, he bore the brunt of the energy, groaning with effort. Sir Braford took the blast full force, the wave smashing into to him, throwing him onto his face. Malark howled in fury when the force smashed into him, his force of will shrugging off the blast.

Lia pulled a handful of vials out of a pouch, flinging them at the tree. Several smashed into the broad trunk, spilling flammable oil across the rough bark. The oil exploded, the heat of the flaming ball igniting the liquid. Belak was raging, his plans falling apart. He flung his hands towards Lia, the ball of fire sailing towards her. Seraphina jumped, tackling Lia and screaming in agony as the flame burned her instead.

Malark charged Belak, sword held high. Smashing the blade down, his stroke smashed the sickle from Belak’s hand and cut him deep. Blood flowed, soaking his robes. He swung his staff, smashing it into Malark, though the raging man barely noticed the blow. Adran staggered to his feet, drawing his sword and attacking the outcast druid. Belak struggled against them, trying to drink a potion distracted him from a vicious sword stroke. Malark’s blade tore through his throat, a spinning strike that embedded the blade into the dying man. Malark grabbed Belak’s head in two hands and smashed his face in with a brutal head butt, letting him tumble over, dead. Hands covered in blood, held low at his side, he looked to the sky, howling in rage and triumph.

The Gulthias Tree was fully in flame now. An inferno of flame and smoke. Watching it burn, the four heard a gasp and a soft cry. Sharwyn was on her knees, hand pressed against the bolt wound Lia had dealt her. “Where… ugh… where am I?” She looked around blankly. He eyes were the deepest blue.

“Deep in the Sunless Citadel.” Lia watched the wounded woman, waiting for her to say more.

Turning Sir Braford over, Adran checked for life. Looking at the others, he shook his head.

Lia got up and helped Malark pulled Belak’s body away from the fire, rummaging through his cloak and pouches. Finding a couple vials of shimmery red liquid, she uncorked one and sniffed. Hurrying over to Seraphina, she held it to her lips. “Drink. Drink this.”

Seraphina gulped the liquid down. Blisters began to fade from across her bare skin, she closed her eyes and slumped against Lia. Watching them, Malark’s eyes widened. Pulling a similar vial from his belt, he opened it and downed the liquid. Cuts and slashes on his chest and arms began to knit, the healing properties of the vital potion coursing through his veins.

Looking at the last bottle in her hands, Lia called to Adran. He was sitting, his breathing ragged and labored, blackened skin and huge blisters covered much of his bare flesh. “Here. Drink this. You need it more than I.” She tossed the vial, watching until he drank it down.

Malark was rummaging through a pouch he pulled from the dead druid. Finding two small crystal vials, he tucked them into his belt pouch. Pulling out a flawless red apple, he held that up for the others to see before tucking it away. Fumbling inside, he found a short, carved stick. It looked like miniature vines encircling a stick. Holding it up, he was about to toss it into the pyre.

“Wait!” Lia held her hand up. “That might be magic.”

“Magic?” he looked confused.

“Imbued with power. Able to conjure a spell. Like that flaming thing he had. Magic.”

“Magic.” He looked closely at the small wand. Turning it slowly, he found tiny carvings. Barely literate, he only recognized dwarven runes, and knew these weren’t runes. Tossing it to Lia, he snorted, “Malark not have magic,” then snapped his fingers in imitation of Lia.

Lia laughed, snapping her fingers, lighting tiny motes of flame, then flicking them away. “No magic for the big guy.”

Sitting for a while, they watched the tree burn. Exhausted, physically and mentally, they sat in silence.

Finally, Seraphina got up, and went to kneel by Sharwyn. Laying her hands on her, she whispered soft words, causing her hands to glow, and the wound to knit closed. “Better?” she asked with a gentle smile.

Nodding, Sharwyn closed her eyes, tears forming and running down her cheeks. “What happened to me?”

Putting her arm around the crying woman, Seraphina leaned close. “I don’t know. Some evil magic. I suppose. From that thing?” she wondered aloud.

“I remember. He had us tied up, and laid us on the roots. It… took us in. Then… I don’t remember anything until just now.”

“I’m so sorry.” Seraphina’s eyes were shiny with tears of her own. Her eyes went wide suddenly. “The apple! Maybe it can heal you. Malark! Give me that apple.” Seraphina rushed over as Malark searched, not even waiting for him to retrieve the apple. Picking his pocket, she raced back to Sharwyn. “Eat. Eat the whole thing. It might help.”

Nodding, Sharwyn began to nibble at the apple.

Adran was standing over Belak’s body. “Malark, help me toss him into the flames. Don’t want anyone raising this foul man from the dead.”

Picking him up by arms and legs, they tossed him onto the fire. Flames licked and curled around the corpse, smoking beginning to rise up.

“Probably him, too. We don’t have any tools to bury him with. We’ll take his sword and armor back, but we should dispose of his body.” Adran was looking at the fallen warrior.

The worked quietly to remove his armor. Finished, Adran looked over at Lia. “Would you have any more of that oil? Something to ensure he burns.”

Lia fished around in her pouch, pulling out several bottles before selecting one and bringing it over. Unstopping the bottle, she poured it over Sir Braford’s clothing. Adran and Malark hefted the body to the flaming pyre and tossed him into the flames.

Backing away, The Four stood side by side, watching the flames consume the fallen adventurer. After a time, Adran turned away. Picking up his gear, he moved off. Looking back, he called out, “We still have a long walk back to town.”

One by one, they turned and followed Adran. Passing through the pale briars, Lia tossed flames at each bush she passed, setting the ‘garden’ aflame as they headed back. Twice a twig blight sprinted from the shadows to attack them. Twice the four shredded the lone foe with exhausted sword strokes.

Reaching the room they considered a study, Seraphina cried out, “Wait! What happened to Mr. Erky? I haven’t seen him…”

Erky’s voice interrupted her, “since I hid under this desk.” He crawled out, looking sheepish. “Sorry, I couldn’t go on. My nerves, you know.” He was toeing the cracked and dirty flagstones, looking down.

“No worries, our little friend, we are on our way out. Hopefully, we’ve seen our last foes in this place.” Adran clapped the little man on the shoulder and continued on.

Walking mostly in silence, the five moved through hall and chamber, less alert than before, though still on edge. The weight of their packs seemed to grow with each step. Reaching the well they had descended into this lower level of the citadel; they looked up at the climb to be made. Erky looked sadly up at the hanging vines. Seraphina plopped on the ground, exhausted and spent. Lia dropped her pack, and drank deep from her waterskin. Adran looked up, then at each of his tired companions. Sharwyn stood off, keeping to herself.

“Malark? If you left your pack and weapons here, could you climb with Erky on your back?”

The big man looked up, then grabbed an armful of vines and pulled himself up. Dropping to the ground he nodded.

“Everyone, take your packs off. And anything else we can tie in a bundle. We’ll tie it all together and climb with a rope. The once we are all up above, we’ll pull everything up together.”

Tired brains took a bit to respond. Dropping most of their gear, they worked to tie it all into a secure bundle. Adran tied two of their ropes end to end, the tied the end around his waist. Malark tied another rope around his waist and handed it to Lia and Seraphina.

“Tie to you. Malark not let you fall.”

Seraphina wrapped her arms around him, giving him a hug. “Oh Mr. Malark, thank you. I don’t know if I can make it up on my own.”

With preparations ready, they began a slow climb up the thick vines. Erky clung to Malark, his arms around the big man’s neck. Seraphina and Lia followed after, the rope tied around each of them, both trying their best to not weigh Malark down. Adran went last, close behind Sharwyn. Despite their exhaustion, the climb was uneventful. Once they were back above, they rested for a bit before hauling the weighty bundle from below.

While they redonned their packs and coiled their ropes they looked around the site of a battle many hours, or even a day before. It looked different from when they were last here.

Lia noticed it first. “Someone has been here. The hobgoblin bodies are gone. Their weapons, and armor. All gone.”

Adran nodded. “The goblins?” he mused aloud.

“Maybe.” Lia walked to an open door. “The goblins…” she said to herself. Looking through the doorway, she looked back, a look of alarm on her face. “Hey… something is very wrong. The goblins are gone.”

Seraphina looked up from her work. “Gone? What do you mean gone?”

“I mean, gone. The goblin settlement is empty. All of them.”

Lia and Adran shared a glance. Malark looked slightly confused. Seraphina hefted her pack.

“Then we need to get going. Get away. Far away.” She headed towards the other door, the one they had come through hours and hours ago.

Motivated by fear, they moved faster. Retracing their path into the citadel. Passing familiar places, the only paused to glance through open doors before moving through. Everywhere things were missing. Barrels. Weapons. Sacks of food stuffs. Everywhere there were more corpses. Dead goblins in places they weren’t before. An eerie silence followed them, the citadel was empty and dead.

An hour later they reached the door the kobold guards had locked behind them. It was smashed open, pieces hanging from the hinges, splintered boards laying on the dark stone floor. They stopped at the ruined door, looking back and forth, before passing through.

“What about Meepo?” Seraphina asked quietly. “Do you think the kobold tribe attacked the goblins, or was it something else?”

“I don’t know.” Adran replied, not looking at Seraphina. He did glance at Lia, a slight movement of her head, and he kept another comment to himself.

When they came back into the kobold area, their questions were answered. A dead silence filled the area. Several dead kobolds lay sprawled across the floor. They didn’t go further into their territory, instead turning back towards the entrance. They came to one of the many empty rooms they had explored in days past, and before they went by, Adran held up a hand.

“Wait here. I’ll go and see if it is day or night out. We may as well spend the night inside if it is already late. I’ll be back soon.”

He didn’t wait for a response, hurrying off into the darkness. Within minutes he was back.

“It is dawn. We’ve been down here longer than I thought. Should we push on, and get away from here? Or rest for a bit?”

“Malark go. Keep going.”

“We do have a long climb up those stairs. Then another rope climb.” Seraphina sighed.

“I could rest. Just for a bit.” Lia yawned. “An hour or two.” She was already entering the room when Adran began to speak.

“An hour or two. No more. We need to put some distance between us and these hills before nightfall.”


A day later, the party approached the outskirts of Oakdale. Walking in silence, the battered adventurers followed the road into town, passing tended fields and outlying farms. Sharwyn’s appearance caused the townsfolk to murmur and point. Getting closer, more than one child was sent running into town ahead of the slowly moving party.

Entering the town proper, a large group was waiting, with Lady Hucrele standing at their center. Sharwyn ran to greet her mother, then stopped short, her strange appearance giving her pause. He mother held no such reservation, and ran to embrace her daughter. Mother and child wept, an awkward silence descending on the others while this intimate moment passed. Finally, Lady Hucrele looked up at the others.

“And my son?” she asked, tears staining her cheeks.

“Gone. But we found this.” Adran spoke softly, holding out his signet ring.

Lady Hucrele choked back a sob, her hand covering her mouth. Then spoke in a firm voice, “It is well. You brought one of my children home. Come, come to our manor and let us eat and discuss your journey.”



Weeks passed. The Four were no longer strangers in town, but welcomed citizens. The constant threat from roving goblins and the occasional orc war party both kept them busy, and helped them further endear themselves to the villagers. A gaggle of children followed Malark whenever he went, begging for shows of strength, or to be tossed into the millpond. He spent time every day with Seraphina, learning to read and write. Adran spent much of his time in the grove dedicated to Selûne. He would often pass blessings on farms in the area and met with the others most evenings for dinner at the inn. Lia spent much of her time alone, either in her room, or drinking in a corner of the tavern. She dined with the others, yet still kept her distance and observed more than she spoke. Seraphina ranged around the village most days. Always home by lunch to sit with Malark over a piece of parchment covered in letters and words. Her idea of dinner was a grand feast, and The Four would often sit together for hours in the evenings. Their discussions would range from what to do with the items looted from the dungeon, to where they would go next. Gathering hints and rumors, they planned and plotted.

Before their plans came to be, another quest was set before them. Once more they were asked to venture below the earth in search of treasure and mystery.

But that is a tale for another day.

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.