The Four- Chapter Eight: The False King

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

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

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

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

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

“Why?” Seraphina looked perplexed.

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

“We’ve gone left plenty.”

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

“Malark?” Seraphina looked up the human.

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

“Ok, fair point. Lia?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh?” Lia replied

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Nope. We are following Mr. Malark.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes?” Adran didn’t meet Lia’s gaze.

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

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

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

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

“Better run faster than me, pure blood.”

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

Distractions and Repainting X-Wing ships

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hardly enough time at all.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But not nearly enough…

Sad BG out

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.