11 March (Continued)
As Meepo led the adventurers away from the Dragon Throne, several scaly heads poked out of various doors looking inquisitive. He ignored them all, and since there was an escort from the tribe, these kobolds seemed content to let the group pass unchallenged. In moments, they had returned to the chamber where they’d first found their new companion – where the dragon had once been kept. Meepo went to the bench near the cage, and gathered a few personal belongings, including a sling and a couple of bags of what sounded like small rocks. He also belted on a pair of daggers, turned to look at the group and nodded once, determination evident in his stance.
Aramis crossed his arms, “We’re ready if you are.”
Meepo nodded in reply, “Thisss way.” Then he moved to a door in the northeast corner of the irregularly shaped chamber. Azal smiled uncertainly at their new companion, but she followed along with the others. Owen looked ready to draw his sword in an instant, seeming to take note of his surroundings in preparation for an attack.
Meepo paused as he arrived at the door, his knees quivering. “Something wrong, Meepo?” Aramis asked.
The kobold winced. “Jussst ssscared,” he admitted.
Azal smiled down at him gently, “It’s okay Meepo, we are with you now. We’ll help you.” Owen took a more direct approach and stepped past the group to shove the door open swiftly.
Beyond, Aramis’s sun rod illuminated a narrow hallway heading to the east that made a ninety degree turn to the south after a few yards. The party followed Owen into the hallway, and after making a dogleg, they came to a door at the end of the crooked hallway on the northern wall. Azal thought to ask, “Meepo, is this door trapped at all by your people?”
“Or their people,” Aramis murmured.
Meepo shook his scaly head, “Not by usss.” He turned, a mischievous smile quirking the edges of his mouth. “We’re not taking the path that we have trapped…” He turned back to face the door again, “But the goblinsss. Who knowsss?”
Azal looked down at the hand that had been pricked by a needle trap in the ruined tower, remembering. “I’ll check it then… Just to be sure.” She and Meepo began to scrutinize the door, but their efforts were interrupted when Owen stepped in front of them and pushed it open easily. The chamber beyond was empty of life, the lonely home of some rat droppings, crumbled flagstone, and nameless stains. Another wooden door stood on the north wall, directly opposite.
“OWEN!” Azal scolded, as Aramis drew in a sharp breath. Nothing untoward happened for a second or so, and the tiefling let out a sigh of relief.
It was short lived relief, as Owen smiled back at her before turning back to call out into the darkness, “I’m home!” Meepo tensed up, his tiny fists clenched in fear. He stared at the halfling as if he had lost his mind. There was a dull echo, but nothing stirred within the chamber in response to Owen’s call. Azal tried to give the kobold a reassuring smile, but she couldn’t keep a slight hint of doubt from her eyes. Owen shrugged, “Looks like no one is here.” Laughing heavily, Owen strolled into the middle of the room, taking a look around. Aramis followed, barely stifling a sigh, and Azal went with him. Meepo, very hesitantly, brought up the rear.
Azal thought she saw something on the floor, and squatted down to take a closer look. “Tracks. More stupid rats,” she muttered. Meepo wandered over beside the tiefling to see what she was looking at.
He cocked his head to one side, commenting, “And some people tracksss, too. Older, though.”
“People,” Azal said, her tone not quite giving it the question. Then her voice sank to nearly a whisper, “Talgen…”
This pronouncement drew Aramis’s interest, and he approached the pair. He asked Meepo, “The humans that were here before… was this the way they came?”
The kobold nodded. “They wasss nice to Meepo. They sssaid Calcryx was magni- magnif- they said he was great.” Aramis glanced at Azal, then back to the tracks Meepo had pointed out.
Azal smiled gently, apparently in a pleasant memory. She looked up at her two companions and said, “We are on the right track, then. We can find out what happened to them, as well as Meepo’s dragon.” She turned to the kobold and said, “Let’s go find them, okay? You can stick by me if you’d like.”
Aramis and Azal realized that they had stopped paying attention to Owen when they felt a draft coming from the north. They turned to see the open door there moments before they heard his voice shout out again, “I’m home!”
Azal’s eyes went wide and she had to steady Meepo, who almost passed out from fright. “Owen! Stop that!” she demanded.
Aramis did not contain his sigh, pinching the bridge of his nose. Then he called out, “Wherever you are, STAY THERE! We’re coming.”
Azal caught the cleric’s gaze and grumped, “It’d be nice if we could SNEAK up on the goblins, and not have a ton of them come visiting us first.” Turning back to the kobold, she asked, “Meepo, are you okay? Stick close to me. We’ll take care of this.” Shivering, he nodded slowly and grabbed onto the hem of Azal’s tunic like a scared child.
They passed through the northern door and found the halfling standing next to a dry fountain in a chamber of similar size and shape to the one they had just exited. The ornate fountain was built into the eastern wall. Though cracked, stained, and dry, the fountain’s carving of a diving dragon retained its beauty. Dust and odd bits of stony debris and rubble lay scattered on the floor. An open hallway to the north, and a relief carved stone door in the center of the western wall opposite the fountain, provided the only two obvious exits. The light provided by the sun rod showed a long hallway to the north with a number of doors, a couple of offshoots.
Owen called loudly into the open room, “Talgen! Kids! Goblins?! Is anyone here? If you’re Goblins we’re here to kick your asses!”
Azal said, “OWEN! Please, I’m begging you… be quiet.”
He turned and gave her a confused look, “I thought we were in a hurry for the kids and goblins.”
“You are going to get us and/or Talgen killed if you keep announcing we are here,” she retorted icily. Then her tone became imploring, “Please… I would rather we get a feeling for the goblins we will have to face rather than have them trampling us all at once.”
Owen sighed and shook his head in disbelief. He turned to Aramis and said, “Did you hear that Raven man? It’s like she doesn’t know we’re the good guys.”
“I think she’s right, Owen,” the cleric said firmly. “Talgen’s a good fighter, and if he ran into trouble down here, we have to be careful.”
“I don’t doubt that he’s skilled, but we’re the greatest adventurers in the world. Nothing down here could beat us,” the halfling commented, nodding with serious finality. Then he crossed his arms and began inspecting the walls of the chamber.
Azal angrily grabbed the sun rod from Aramis and slowly moved to look down the northern hallway. Meepo, still holding Azal’s hem, followed like a walking catatonic, staring fearfully in the same direction. Aramis thought to distract the kobold and said, “Meepo, do you see the human tracks in here?”
Gradually stirring from his fear-induced daze, Meepo blinked once and slowly turned toward Aramis. “Tracksss?” he asked stupidly. A second or so later, it dawned on him what Aramis was saying, “Right. Tracksss.”
Aramis nodded patiently and said, “Please, Meepo.”
Azal caught on to what the cleric was doing and crouched down near the kobold, asking, “Wanna help me look, Meepo?”
The kobold nodded up at her, stealing one last glance down the northern hallway as he did. Aramis moved to stand near the fountain, trying to place himself between Meepo and the hall. Azal asked, “Is there something down there that’s scaring you?”
The kobold turned toward her and shrugged. “Goblinsss are that way,” he said simply.
Meepo frowned as he turned his attention back to the floor. “Sssee tracksss, but jussst ratsss. No peoplesss.”
“Alright,” said Aramis. “Thank you for trying.”
Azal looked concerned, “This isn’t good… If the tracks end here, and the goblins are that way… They must have encountered them here.”
“Then let’s go find them,” asserted Aramis.
Meepo’s shoulders slumped. “Me sssorry.”
The tiefling looked at him and said, “It’s okay, we are with you, and we will find them and your dragon. We’ll get them all back, I promise.”
Aramis spared a glance at the fountain and frowned a bit before proceeding into the hall. Seeing him looking, Azal asked, “Do you think there is something important about that fountain?”
“No… Just curious,” he replied, moving up toward the four-way intersection a short distance from the room with the fountain. Several yards down the door-lined hallway to the north, he could see another fountain against the far wall of a larger chamber. An open pit was visible just past the end of the hallway within that chamber. To the east, the wall had crumbled away, leaving a pile of rubble and an opening to the natural rift wall. To the west, he found Owen standing in an alcove before a wooden door.
Owen winked at Aramis and called out, “GIANT ARMORED SKELETON!” Then the halfling threw himself to the ground, producing a loud crash of armor on stone. He stifled a giggle and then stood, straightened himself up and looked around the corner to the south where Azal and Meepo were standing to announce, “It’s okay. We got it!”
Aramis hissed, “What are you doing now?!”
Meepo’s grip on Azal’s tunic tightened and in a soft voice he asked the tiefling, “Doesss he have to keep ssshouting like that?”
Azal glared at the halfling. “Owen, please be quieter! You’re scaring Meepo half to death, and you are going to let the goblins know we are here!” In an undertone, she grumbled, “Is it against any laws to leash and muzzle fellow adventurers?”
The halfling sighed and pushed the western door open, to reveal a small square chamber, twenty feet to a side, which held nothing but debris, rat tracks, stains, rubble and another wooden door on the north wall. Azal was comforting Meepo again, who nodded quietly while he watched Owen closely, fully expecting the halfling to make a ruckus in the next few seconds. For his part, the warrior shook his head sadly, “It’s not as much fun if you don’t call out.”
“Call out when you see something,” Aramis offered by way of compromise.
Scratching his head, Owen started to explain, “How will it know to come out if I don’t call?”
Azal’s anger returned in a flash and she snapped at the halfling, “Owen, we don’t need something just randomly attacking us. Don’t call out, SIMPLY tell us.”
The halfling shrugged, “You don’t have to get so mad. It’s just the quickest way to find these people that we’re looking for. I thought we were in a hurry.”
Aramis grumbled to himself, “Quickest way to find out if Celeine’s on the other side, you mean.”
Azal fumed, “Yeah, we are looking for them, but we don’t want to get ourselves and them killed in the process.”
Owen shook his head. “I’m surprised at you two. There’s no way that we will die down here. How could you come adventuring and not even know that?”
Aramis replied evenly, “Just humor us, please?”
“I just never thought that you would be afraid of the dark, Raven Man,” Owen sighed sadly, clearly disappointed.
The cleric said, “I do not fear the dark. Only what hides within it.”
Deciding to ignore the continuing debate and reining in her anger, Azal turned back to the kobold, “Meepo, do you know which way the goblins are?”
The scaly humanoid looked thoughtful for a few moments, but then he shrugged pitifully. “Me not sssure. Me no go with raiding partiesss. Me Keeper of the Dragonsss.” The capital letters were evident.
“Thank you, Meepo,” she said comfortingly, looking back at the others. “Let’s check the room, see if there is trace of goblins and/or humans, and then decide from there.”
Aramis nodded, and moved past Owen into the room. The others followed, and Owen sat in the northeast corner, patiently waiting for the results of the investigation.
“More tracks here,” Aramis said as he pointed them out. Azal and Meepo drew closer to take a look, but the kobold just stared blankly at the floor. He seemed frazzled, and shrugged wordlessly to indicate that he couldn’t make anything of the tracks. The cleric continued, “I don’t recognize these, though.”
Azal’s face grew worried, “Human-sized… but I only see three sets…” Her voice grew tense and emotional, “They’re probably from Talgen’s group. We should definitely go through the door.”
“Agreed,” Aramis responded before pulling open the door.
A bell began to clang raucously above the door, but the servant of the Raven Queen was more immediately concerned by the goblins leveling crossbows at him from behind a crude half-wall that had been constructed in the hallway beyond, a few yards away. Before he could blink, two small crossbow bolts slammed into him, piercing his chainmail. He looked down at the projectiles sticking from his body and then noticed that the twenty foot hall was filled with tiny twisted metal spikes all the way from the door to the crenellated half-wall. Aramis reeled, but had the presence of mind to cry out, “The hall is full of caltrops!”
One of the goblins swiftly reloaded his weapon and sank another bolt into Aramis, while Azal pulled her magic dagger and instructed Meepo to take cover behind the door. She rolled the blade across her fingers before letting fly across the short expanse. In defiance of their superior tactical position and the cover provided by the wall, the vicious dagger slammed home into one of the sniper’s shoulders. It cried out in pain and then astonishment as the weapon vanished, only to reappear in the tiefling’s hand. Smirking, Azal pivoted across the doorway and out of the goblins’ line of sight.
Owen, thinking quickly, moved to stand beside the cleric and pushed the door closed. “Heal yourself, Raven Man. I will prepare to lead the charge,” he said grimly.
Meepo blinked at the sudden action and immediate reprieve. He looked around at the others questioningly, apparently unsure of what he should be doing. Aramis pulled the small bolts out of him and used his healing magic to knit the holes in his flesh. Then he called upon his inner reserve of strength and used that to ignore the pain. He then switched places with Azal, who was moving quietly to stand beside Owen.
She carefully opened the door, managing to remain undetected by the goblins as she did so. Owen, however, was exposed, and the goblins revealed themselves by firing their crossbows at him. One bolt sank into his thigh, but the other was fortunately stopped by the armor over his chest. With a flick of her wrist, the tiefling flipped her dagger end over end and buried it in the already wounded goblin’s left eye. It collapsed to the floor in a puddle of its own blood. Owen quickly drew and lobbed one of his own daggers at the remaining goblin, then readied his sword and shield. The startled goblin recoiled as the halfling’s blade sailed across the distance and sank into its shoulder. Meepo, seeing his brave new friends wounded on his behalf, set his jaw in renewed determination. He boldly moved up behind Owen and pointed at the goblin standing behind the half-wall. With an improvised war cry, he let fly with his sling. Unfortunately, despite his brave display, his inexperience caused the shot to fall short, and it ricocheted off of the wall and skittered across the caltrop littered floor. Aramis nodded in approval at the kobold, then moved behind Azal, and brought a lance of faith to bear on the goblin. Radiant energy burned the creature’s flesh, but did not bring it down.
The sniper stared in shock at its fallen companion and its own wounds for a brief moment trying to comprehend how their ambush had so quickly gone awry. That moment of contemplation shattered abruptly as self preservation instincts took over and sent it screaming to the west and out of the adventurers’ view. They heard the sound of a door opening before the flapping of wide feet on the cobblestones trailed off along with the creature’s screams.
Aramis grimaced, “If he alerts anyone else, we’re dead.”
Owen gave a short kick to the back of Aramis’s knee, and retorted, “We are NOT dead. Don’t you see? This is destiny!” His face was deadly serious, like that of the frightening combatant from before.
Glaring down at the halfling, the cleric rejoined, “Don’t YOU see? Goblins AREN’T honorable creatures. They don’t play by your rules.”
Azal shouted at them both, “Close the door and block it, fools!”
Turning away from Owen, Aramis did exactly that. Then he, Azal and Meepo set about barricading the door.
The halfling gazed quietly at them for a moment as they worked. Then he interjected, “What’s wrong with you guys? What has this place done to you?”
“This IS who I am, Owen,” said Aramis, a little coldly.
Owen had retired to his corner and pulled out a book, in which he jotted a quick note of some sort. Finishing that, he leaned against the wall and in a sleepy voice, said, “I chose you because you are going to be one of the best, Raven Man. Remember that.”
Aramis, unsure of how to respond to that, went back to helping Azal with the door. Meepo had been gathering rocks for Azal and trying to avoid the angry looks that seemed to be flying around the room. The tiefling smiled kindly down at the kobold and said, “Thank you, Meepo. I appreciate it.” His face twitched in what might have been a sallow smile. With his reptilian features, it was difficult to tell.
When they finished the barricade, Aramis began to examine the fresh rip in his tunic. The kobold finally settled into the corner opposite Owen, letting the adrenaline bleed off. Meepo looked thoughtful for a moment, then said to Azal, “You sssaid only three sssetsss of people printsss in thisss room. Where did the other one go?”
The priest looked up, “Did we see four in the room with the fountain?” The kobold nodded wordlessly.
Azal appeared to be on the verge of tears at the observation and admitted, “I don’t know…”
“Perhaps someone went through the door out there,” suggested Aramis.
“Lotsss of doorsss,” Meepo said dubiously.
Azal collapsed to her knees in front of the trapped door, her features distraught. The human took a couple of steps toward the tiefling and crouched down before her. “We’re going to find him, Azal,” he insisted. “We have to.” Azal wiped her face and looked up at Aramis, nodding sadly.
Eyeing Owen as he dozes, Meepo said softly, “Him dangerousss. He talk of adventure and like death unpossssible… Not true down here.” He hugged his scaly knees to his hide-clad chest.
The tiefling turned toward Meepo as he spoke. When he’d finished she said, “I honestly think he believes death isn’t possible. She got up and walked over to Meepo, patting Aramis’s shoulder as she passed him. “I’ll do my best to look after you, okay? That’s what Talgen, one of the adventurers before did for me, and I’m gong to do it for you.”
The kobold nodded, but kept gazing at the halfling, who slumped over, clearly asleep. His cruel smile had faded to a more sincere one as his breathing gradually started to regulate itself.
Once they had regained their breath, Aramis stood up and dusted himself off. Suddenly, Meepo looked up at the eastern doorway in alarm and said, “What that noise?” The priest craned his neck to listen, and thought he heard chittering and the sounds of several tiny feet approaching from the hall.
“Rats!” he cried out, waking Owen from his light slumber, and sending the armored halfling scrambling to his feet.
Azal grimaced, “I hate rats…”
The first rat, as large as an alley cat, rounded the corner from the northern intersection of the hallway linking the fountain chambers. It paused until it was overrun by the hound-sized dire rats that clambered around the corner. They shoved the smaller rat out of the way, their jaws slavering as they charged into the room. One each bore down on Azal and Meepo in the southwest corner, but the adventurers scrambled to their feet and avoided the rats’ disease-ridden fangs. A third loped along behind them, but paused in the hallway, the obvious prey already taken.
Azal lifted her dagger high and spun it through her fingers as she brought it down hard, burying the necrotic blade in the dire rat’s back. It squealed in pain and anger, as Owen moved forward to flank the creature, stabbing at it while diverting attention with his shield. His short sword struck deep into the surrounded creature, and its blood flowed freely. Azal took advantage of its disorientation to slide around it and hopefully draw its attention from Meepo. Unfortunately, two of the four giant rats that then spilled around the corner dashed into the room to bite at the tiefling’s legs. She was unable to avoid both of them and she felt the sharp teeth pierce her flesh. Seeing this, Meepo frantically pulled out one of his daggers and stabbed at the wounded dire rat, scoring only a minor wound. Aramis pivoted to the northwest corner near the barricaded door and sent a lance of faith toward the unwounded dire rat. The vicious creature dodged the ray and snarled back at the cleric, though it continued to hound the kobold.
The heavily injured dire rat whirled on Owen, a feral madness in its gaze, and the third shoved past the lesser rats to get to the tiefling. She slashed at it as it passed and scored a telling blow on its flank. The dire rat squealed as it was stabbed, but then whirled and sank its teeth into the young woman. She could feel the initial queasiness brought on by the vermin’s infected fangs setting in. Seeing that she was almost completely surrounded by rats, she gave the cornered kobold a guilty look and said, “Meepo, I’m coming to help you, okay? I promised, and I’m going to protect you!” Then, she spun around and with a quick one-two stab, stuck the magic dagger into the back of the dire rat threatening the kobold and activated its flesh-eating curse. The tell-tale necrotic mist began seeping from the wound as it began to consume the creature from the inside.
Cursing to himself, Owen slammed his shield into the heavily wounded dire rat positioned between the halfling and Meepo. He injured it a little and followed up by shoving it away from the kobold with his shield and stepping into its former position. The halfling flashed a smile at Azal. “Go. Let me worry about the protecting. I won’t let anyone hurt any of my friends. Don’t you know how important you are to me?” Then he spun around and lined up a shot on the cursed dire rat thrusting his short sword at the writhing creature. His blade struck true, and though both were shallow wounds, the dire rats he’d stabbed seem to focus all their attention on the halfling.
The giant rats swarmed Azal, though she spiked one through the head as it tried to get around its fellow. Unfortunately, doing so cost her as two of the vermin scored bite wounds on her exposed legs. Then Meepo pulled his other dagger from its sheath and furiously stabbed both blades at the heavily wounded dire rat. His weapons pierced the creature through its eyes, slaying it instantly. Emboldened, the kobold shifted to stand atop the corpse. Azal’s eyes widened at the sight of Meepo triumphant. Aramis recognized that they were not out of it yet, and sent a lance of faith searing into the cursed rat. The pale light of the human’s faith in the death goddess seared the injured creature deeply. Then he snarled another entreaty to the Raven Queen and conjured radiant flames to burn the other remaining dire rat. The residual energy from the flames bolstered Owen’s own natural physical prowess and he nodded his thanks to the priest.
The cursed vermin squealed as the necrotic energy destroyed a little more of its muscle tissue. Trapped in the corner, it turned on the looming figure of Owen and snapped at him, while the third dire rat sank its teeth into Azal again, and drew more blood from the tiefling. In response, she turned on the dire rat, raising her dagger high above her head, and then plunging it down into the creature’s back. Hooking the blade on its spine, she leaped straight up and shoved it under her and all the way into the far northeast corner of the room. She spun as she landed and slashed her blade across the cursed dire rat’s throat, tearing out its windpipe and ending its suffering. So doing, she moved to Owen’s other side, on the western side of the room, keeping an eye on Meepo. Owen nodded in approval and surged forward, slamming his shield into the closest rat, knocking it from its feet, and crushing its body against the eastern wall. When it hit the ground, it lay very still. Seeing the rest of their fellows utterly destroyed, the remaining two giant rats turned to flee. Owen decapitated one on its way past him, but the last one escaped the room and disappeared into the rubble on the opposite side of the intersection.
Completely emboldened by the group’s success against the rats, Meepo strode forward with both daggers leading and tried to repeat his stab-it-in-the-face tactic. Azal’s mouth dropped open at his daring, and though she tried to speak, she had no words. However, her dismay proved premature, as the kobold sliced the edge of the dire rat’s face with one of his blades. Aramis finished the creature off with a lance of faith. Turning to the others, Meepo smiled a little, “Me think me getting the hang of thisss…”