11 March (Continued)
Aramis blinked at the caged dwarf, “Um, no.” The adventurers set about releasing the prisoners, though the kobolds were reluctant until Meepo walked in the door and explained what they were about. No keys were evident, but Azal and Owen made short work of the locks. The dwarf introduced himself as Erky Timbers, and thanked the group for their help and for dispatching the goblin guards.
After speaking with and releasing the captive kobolds, Meepo told the others that he was going to escort his tribesmen back home. He offered to meet up with the group the next day and took his leave of them. Erky gratefully accompanied the others back to the entrance of the Citadel, where they all took refuge in the secret chamber. Once there, Owen crashed out against the wall and the others started speaking.
Aramis said, “So tell us, Erky, how did you end up down here?”
Azal, right on top of him asked, “Erky, have you seen the goblins take any other prisoners while you were here?”
The dwarf held up his hands defensively, “Oi, one question at a time, and in the proper order, eh? I was taken by the gohblins comin’ up on a year ago, now.”
The tiefling said, “How did you get caught by them? Were you down here? Or did they catch you elsewhere?”
The dwarf replied, “I was on my way to seek mah fortune ahnd took the Old Road as a shortcut. My bahd luck that the gohblin bandits caught me; I’ve been here ever since. If they didn’t enjoy torturin’ me so much, I’m sure I’d’ve been killed long since.” Azal grimaced as she noticed the scars evident across most of Erky’s visible flesh.
“They are fiendish creatures,” Aramis intoned.
Azal nodded in agreement, “I’m sorry you had to deal with that. We will get you out of here if we can, but… We are looking for others right now…people that are very dear to us. You haven’t seen any other prisoners have you?”
The dwarf nodded, “Aye, the gohblins caught three of them over a month ago, and they were captives with me for a short time. They said their names were Talgen, Sharwyn, and Karakas. The gohblins kept them only about a week before they removed them. Belak wanted them, and thaht’s the lahst I’ve heard about thaht.”
Azal gasped, her hand covering her mouth, then turned to Aramis, “But why would he want Talgen and the others??? What use are they to him?”
Erky quirked an eyebrow and said off hand, “Fertilizer?” He paused for a couple of seconds after, seeming to realize that might have been a little callous. The tiefling’s mouth dropped open and her face distorted, her horror evident. “Sorry,” the dwarf said, chagrined. “It’s been awhile since I was in polite company. No excuse, I suppose.” He seemed genuinely abashed. Her face softened the slightest bit. “It’s…it’s okay. I’m just… Being down here and not finding them yet… I’m a little sensitive.” Erky offered her an awkward smile.
“Belak?” Aramis prompted, leaning forward.
Erky nodded, “I’ve heard the gohblins talk about the Twilight Grove down below. There, a druid called Belak tends an enchahnted garden and harvests the fruit from something the goblins call the Gulthias Tree…but only in the most terrified of whispers.”
Aramis scratched his chin. “Apples, I’ll wager.”
The dwarf shrugged, “Seems likely.”
“I don’t know what Belak would want with them, but if they’ve been taken to this Twilight Grove, that’s where we must go.” Owen’s light snores could be heard from his corner.
Erky nodded, his brow furrowing, “But tell me, why do you travel with a kobold?”
Aramis leaned back a bit and said, “He’s helping us. Really, we’re helping each other.”
The dwarf seemed skeptical. “Oh? How’s thaht?”
“The goblins took his people’s dragon,” the priest explained. “We’re trying to find it.”
“Huh,” commented Erky.
Azal chimed in, “And amazingly, he’s been very helpful in a fight.”
“Indeed,” Aramis agreed.
The dwarf pressed on, “And in exchange, he’s helping you get the kids bahck?”
“Just so,” the cleric said as Azal nodded.
Erky Timbers looked amazed. “Strangest kobold I ever heared of, then.”
“He is,” Aramis replied softly.
“A’course, drahgon huntin’ ain’t exahctly the most sure pahth to livin’ a long life, either,” said the dwarf.
Aramis conceded the point, “True. But I don’t want to run into it down here without Meepo.”
Erky relented, “Fair enough, I suppose.”
The cleric continued, “As for us, we’re continuing into the goblin territory after we’ve rested.”
The dwarf nodded, “Ye didn’t seem the type to bahck down. And ye cut a swath through their outer ranks, to be sure.”
“Do you think you’ll head for Oakhurst?” Aramis asked.
Erky scratched the back of his head and said, “Well, I owe ye for mah freedom. On my own, I were clearly no mahtch fer the gohblins, but maybe I could make myself of some use with others. Of course, if ye dinnae need any more help, then I imahgine I will,” he finally answered. “Corkie’s like to give me a proper tongue lahshin’, though.”
The corner of Aramis’s lip seemed to turn up. “Yes, I imagine she will.”
“Told ‘er I’d write,” he said by way of explanation. It seemed to Azal that his cheeks had turned a darker shade of red, but it was always difficult to tell with ruddy faced dwarves. Smirking to herself, she smoothly changed the subject.
“We might could use the help Aramis… He probably has knowledge of what lies ahead of us… He has been around the goblins for over a year.
They discussed weapons, armor, and what the dwarf knew of the citadel’s layout for the rest of the afternoon. He mentioned one escape attempt that led him through the other western door leading from the chamber in which they’d fought all the goblins. It passed through a storage chamber of some sort and emptied into a long, smoke-filled hallway. After they’d decided on a path, the dwarf also worked some sort of magic that recharged Azal’s bloodthirsty dagger. “Ooh. Vicious little blighter,” he commented as he handed the weapon back back. He waggled his eyebrows, and she had to admit that she was impressed.
The rest of the day passed, and Erky told the adventurers more about himself. Owen woke up after awhile and invited the dwarf to join the party, as Aramis and Azal had come to expect of him. The halfling seemed quite pleased that his companions had taken the initiative and already done so. Aramis treated the rat bites suffered by his companions earlier in the day before the last of the sunlight that could reach the bottom of the gorge faded. True darkness settled in on the rough camp in the cramped secret chamber, and after a cold meal of hard tack, they all settled in and tried to get some real sleep.
12 March, 103 CY
The next morning, the four met up with Meepo in the dragon chamber, where they found the kobold waiting patiently near the broken cage. The four jade statues he’d collected from the rats’ nests were on display on the bench. It appeared that some attempt to repair the breach in the iron bars had been made. As introductions were made, it was clear that the dwarf still had no trust for Meepo. For his part, the kobold seemed content to let it be. Owen led the party north to the last goblin chamber.
As the halfling opened the door and the group filtered in cautiously, they could clearly see that nothing stirred within the bloody chamber. Additionally, the bodies had been removed. “You’d think they’d have a reserve posted,” complained Erky. “At least one guard…”
Aramis nodded, “I was thinking that, yes. More rats?”
Azal frowned, “Would the rats drag off that many bodies that quickly?”
“Not likely,” the cleric admitted.
Meepo shook his head in agreement. “Not this fassst.”
Owen shrugged “Maybe they gave up,” he suggested cheerfully before vaulting the half-wall.
Azal cringed as he did so and whispered, “Owen please be careful.”
The halfling ignored her and addressed Erky, “Is this the door to the smoky hall, Magic Dwarf?”
Said ‘Magic Dwarf’ harrumphed and said, “It is. And my name is Erky…”
“Ha ha ha!” Owen laughed aloud then turned back to the door. Azal shook her head at him.
“It’s…it’s what he does,” said Aramis to Erky, half-apologetically. The halfling opened the door slowly and peeked inside. Smirking over the half-wall at his companions, he walked on in. Azal hissed at him to be careful again, then sighed and followed him through the door, hoping to intercept any trouble he might stir up. The others crossed the half-wall, bringing up the rear.
The north and south walls of this chamber were stacked halfway to the ceiling with ill-made barrels, boxes, and crates. A clear path allowed easy access between the door from which they’d entered and another in the middle of the west wall. “Thaht’s the door to the smoky hall,” Erky said. Aramis and Azal poked around the stacked containers, seeking anything of interest. The chamber was clearly used to store sundries, including brackish water, putrid jerky, a few pints of lamp oil, and several barrels with Goblin writing on them.
Pointing at one of the barrels, Aramis turned to the tiefling, “What does this say, Azal?”
She ran her finger beneath the words and, then turned a disgusted look back on him. “Elf Pudding,” she announced. Erky shuddered at the thought.
“I’m sorry I asked,” said Aramis.
Azal inspected the far door next, searching it for any alarms or more fiendish traps the goblins might have placed on it. After she declared it clear, she turned back to the group with a questioning glance. Meepo said, “Ssshould we doussse the light before we open it?” Aramis nodded, and covered up the sunrod. Then Azal very slowly pushed the door open to reveal the large hall beyond.
Several torches mounted in crude wall sconces burned fitfully in this chamber, filling the air with a haze that blurs sight. A double row of marble columns carved with entwining dragons marched the length of the hall. Without preamble, Owen entered the hall and began to look around. Azal repeated her whispered warning to the halfling then led the others after him. No sooner had Meepo crossed the threshold than he perked up, his snout lifted. He sniffed the smoky air a couple of times and said, “I smell… Calcryx!” He moved over to a nearby door on the north wall, “Behind this door!” he said excitedly, reaching for the handle before Azal interceded.
“WAIT… slowly, Meepo. Let’s be careful,” she said as she swiftly walked up to the door beside him. He paused, but he seemed eager to open it up. “Would you like me to check?” she offered. “I can sneak in, just in case… there are any big goblins in there.”
“I’ll open it,” Owen offered hopefully.
Azal looked askance at him. “I got it, Owen. Let’s sneak into this…just in case.” He sighed heavily, but didn’t press the matter. “There will be no senseless death…” the tiefling continued, apparently speaking to herself. “Not anymore.” She pushed open the door.
Within, mounted and stuffed animal heads adorned the walls. The mounting job was sloppy, and the assortment of heads included cattle, rats, and other not particularly impressive specimens. However, a few grisly trophies shared the wall with the animals, including a couple of kobold visages. Smashed and broken cabinets and small tables littered the periphery of the room, mute victims of some sort of rampage. A rusted iron spike stood askew in the center of the room, trailing a broken chain. Sections of the walls, floor, and debris appeared to be singed. A short set of wooden stairs led down into the chamber, and Azal took a step onto them.
The steps did not support her wait, and she crashed through them, falling prone in the doorway. His excitement overcoming him, Meepo leaped over the fallen tiefling and dashed into the room calling out, “Calcryx!” Owen followed the kobold in, just as exuberant.
“Meepo, I thought this thing was… tame,” she said looking around the chamber as she stood to move beside Owen, casually drawing the magic dagger. Back at the door with Aramis, Erky readied his goblin hand crossbow and cast a suspicious glance across the trophy room. Suddenly, an angry voice came from beneath a fallen table, which was reduced to so much kindling as a pony-sized, red-scaled dragon burst up from beneath it. “Meepo!!!” it cried before breathing a gout of flame across all five adventurers.
Meepo and Aramis caught the worst of the dragon’s breath, but no one was completely unharmed. Faster than anyone could react, Calcryx was on the kobold, slashing with its wicked claws! He cried out in Draconic, “DIE!!!” Meepo’s blood splattered across the floor, and he staggered a bit under the onslaught.
Aramis held his position in the doorway, and ignored his burns to send a healing prayer Meepo’s way. Then he uttered stronger words of power to shield his allies from the dragon’s frenzied assault with the power of his faith. “Try not to kill it!” he called to the others.
Meepo carefully sidled past and behind Owen, to get away from the dragon. “Bad Calcryx!” he scolded the wyrmling, before taking a steeling breath. Owen tried to force the creature back with his sword and shield, but the dragon’s thick scales rebuffed his tide of iron. Ever one to adapt to a bad situation, the halfling slid to one side of Calcryx, hoping too draw his attention and find a more advantageous position from which to strike. Azal deftly leapt over the dragon’s tail swipe as she moved to his opposite flank, which caused the wyrmling to overbalance. Taking advantage of its moment of weakness, she spun the dagger up before plunging it into the creature’s leg. The wound was deep, but not debilitating, and the tiefling flicked her eyes from Meepo to the dragon.
“Bah!” Erky groused from the doorway beside Aramis. The dwarf’s hands glowed for a brief moment before eldritch energy flowed into the cleric, reducing the pain of his burn wounds. Then the artificer leveled his stolen hand crossbow at the dragon and launched a bolt that seemed to crackle with magical energy as it flew. Unfortunately, it shattered against Calcryx’s hard scales. The dragon ignored all of them to pursue its quarry Meepo, who was pinned against the wall. It brought its claws to bear again, and this time the kobold swooned and fell to the stony floor. Then the dragon whirled on Azal and Owen.
In a worried tone, the tiefling asked, “Should we really keep this thing alive, Aramis?!” The cleric calmly moved to kneel beside Meepo, doing what he could to stabilize the scaly little man, before turning cold eyes on the wyrmling that had laid him low. Unfortunately, his anger affected his aim, and the lance of holy energy struck the floor beneath Calcryx.
Owen looked thoughtful as he paused for half a second, then shifted nearer the door and holding his sword at the ready. He gave Azal a meaningful look, and the tiefling took the hint, then the flank, whereupon both adventurers struck out with their blades. But Calcryx seemed to have learned this tactic already, and pivoted to allow its scales to repel the attempted pincer maneuver. Erky fired another shot, but missed once more, and then the dragon took wing, hovering just above the adventurers’ heads. Turning to face Azal, the wyrmling took a light stab from Owen as it raked her with his razor-sharp talons. The tiefling’s blood flowed freely, and she, too, dropped to the filthy floor.
Aramis’s next prayer created a beacon of hope, and though it failed to penetrate the dragon’s defenses, it did send a wave of healing energy into each of his allies, bringing Meepo and Azal back to consciousness. Then with another minor prayer, he healed even more of the tiefling’s wounds. Meepo stood, pulled a dagger, and took up a defensive position until he could find a better spot from which to strike. His breathing was shallow, but he looked more angry than hurt. Taking advantage of the dragon’s distraction at the heroes rising from the edge of death, Owen hooked the edge of his shield on Calcryx’s foot and pulled the wyrmling down just enough to smash the wood into its hindquarters. The shove threw the creature off balance and it lost control of its flight, crashing down to the floor, prone. Grinning at his success, the halfling circled the room and stabbed the dragon again for good measure.
Azal crawled back to her feet, the wrath of her infernal heritage blazing in her eyes. Even so, the elemental beast’s red scales protected it from the tiefling’s furious jab. Erky chanted something and sent eldritch energy that formed a yellow barrier around Azal. It was a measure of protection that she knew she could share with any of her allies if she gave it the smallest bit of concentration. She nodded over her shoulder at the dwarf as he cast another minor spell to patch Meepo up a little more. “Get out of there, you lizard-spawned fool!” he shouted at the kobold.
“Meepo, is there anyway to calm him down?!” Azal shrieked at Meepo.
In an eerily calm voice, the kobold replied, “Calcryx respects only strength.”
“Well, I think we’ve proved we are strong! He can stop now!” she cried.
The wyrmling stood and snarled as it looked around at the numerous apparent threats, finally deciding on Owen. However, Owen had taken the measure of the wyrmling’s attacks, and owing to his swift defensive footwork and incredible natural luck, he evaded the red’s wicked claws. “Do you see, Calcryx? We are the greatest adventurers the world has ever known,” Owen said to the dragon in its own tongue. “You cannot defeat us. Meepo is our companion, and because he seeks to capture you, we – will – capture you.”
Aramis stepped off the platform and tried to lance the dragon again, but the wily creature evaded the attack. “YIELD!” he demanded, unsure of what Owen might be saying.
Dropping the dagger, Meepo loaded his sling with a stone. In Draconic he said, “I have learned great strength from these people, Calcryx. Would you like to see?” Sighting down his arm, he lets fly with one stone after another. One of the pair smacked the wyrmling hard on the snout, and tears welled up in his eyes. “Come back with us.”
Then Owen spoke again, “Your fate. Your choice. I will not offer again.” He lowered his sword, but not his guard.
“Meepo, tell him that we all agree not to hurt him if he agrees to come back with us,” Azal insisted, following Owen’s lead by lowering her dagger as she spoke. Meepo translated for her.
The dwarf kept his crossbow leveled at the dragon and sneered. “I just want an excuse, lizard,” he muttered. Aramis watched the scene, heart pounding in his throat.
Calcryx stared around at the adventurers, opening its mouth enough for them all to see the spark within the back of its maw, the threat of another fiery breath. Then it seemed to reconsider and spoke to Meepo. “I will not be a slave to the kobolds again,” he said.
The kobold nodded, “Then we…I will make it known to Yusdrayl that you come back to us on different terms. You have grown stronger, and deserve to be respected as such.”
Calcryx tilted his head to one side, considering Meepo. “As have you, it would seem,” he acknowledged. The wyrmling looked around at the others. “Strength in diversity?” he asked.
Meepo slashed his hand out in the negative, “Something stronger. Strength in trusted allies. Friends.”
Calcryx chuckled derisively, “We shall see… Very well. I shall accompany you back to the tribe.” His wings settled back and his posture relaxed.
Aramis let out a breath he hadn’t realized he was holding, and Owen sheathed his sword with a bright smile. “Of course you will!” he said cheerfully in Common. The others also put their weapons away, though Erky was hesitant to do so.
“We should get out of here,” he grumped. “Before the gohblins get curious enough to investigate all the racket we’ve been making…”
“Agreed,” said Aramis.