Tuesday 14 May 2024

Draconnic Shennanigans - Episode 17

Chapter Seventeen: Isty Bitsy Spider

 "If the entertainment has been to your satisfaction perhaps we can be moving on?" Jeremiah asked as he swung his pack back on to his back. He looked around the cave they had found themselves in. It wasn't as big as some of the caverns they had through recently and compared to the glitz and glamour of the mushroom cave it was outright dull.  The walls, what he could see of them were nothing but brown rock, water worn and runneled by the trickle of water since time out of mind. In the dark water dripped and plopped in unseen pools, the plink plink of droplets dripping from the ceiling to hammer fall on the ever growing piles of limestone below building the slow counter point. Jeremiah squinted into the dark. Really he should be able to see more than this. He turned round, looking for Hat. The zombie-fied moth lay on the floor, twitching and quivering, its antenna fluttering as its normal blue glow fought for control with a burnish golden emanation that was circulating in its system. It stretched out fully on the ground and rubbed at its head with its front legs, a look of true misery filling its eyes.

"Hat! Here!" Jeremiah jabbed a finger at the point of his miter. The miserable moth shook and rattled for a moment more and then the the golden glow was pushed down by some Herculean effort and Hat took off, wobbled through the air and landed on Jeremiah's Hat. Kaelin's head snapped round and her eyes fixed on the ceiling, ears flicked forward to hone in on something she'd heard.

"What is it?" Ulrich asked.

 "I'm not sure," Kaelin muttered, ears twitching.

"Hat? Fetch!" Jeremiah instructed. The giant moth drooped for a moment but the gold was fading more and more from its system. With a buzz that could only be a sigh, it lifted off from Jeremiah's miter and buzzed up towards the ceiling, looping through the dripping stalactites, its glow shining off of all the damp surfaces, casting a blue sheen over the damp rock except one stalactites refused to glow. Its sides were a dull rocky crust that seemed out of place in the wetly gleaming cave. Kaelin swayed from side to side, frowning as the change of angle made her brain know that there was something wrong with that particular stalactite but could quite bring what it was into full focus of her fore brain.

Then the blunt tip of the stalactite opened into a mouth and bit at Hat. The moth dropped in the air as panic sent its wing beat completely off of rhythm, the rocky things fangs clashing together once again just behind it.

"What's that?" Thorian asked, frowning as the 'stalactite' shifted, dropping it full cameo of rocky texture, the branching buttresses rock of its base becoming tentacles that crept and oozed across the surface of the rock.

"I think that is what they call a Cave Octopod," Ulrich suggested, "Risgath's book mentioned them as one of the native predators of the Underworld. Might be related to octopi but there is debate about that."

"Never mind that!" Kaelin snapped, "How do the bleeding things hunt?"

"Usually by trying to drop upon the heads of their prey... Jeremiah step back right now!" Ulrich snapped. The Octopod bunched its tentacles. Jeremiah grinned and didn't move, muttering something that could have been a pray, or not, as he clenched his hand.

The octopod dropped. The jet of embers and sparks roared up, meeting it coming down. Kaelin wasn't sure is the pained whistling noise was its scream or whether it was the pressure release as the things super heated fluids boiled within its skin. It burst on the floor when it landed, smelling like boiled oysters. Kaelin gagged on it.

"Um," Thorian looked at the roof of the cave, "I don't think that can be good." Other shapes were shifting in the shadows of the ceiling, squeezing and squashing between the arches and groins of rock.

 "Time to leave!" Ulrich stated and with one eye on the ceiling he began to run across the cave floor towards the only other entrance visible in the gloom.

 "It's Thorian time!" the orc crossbreed bellowed with a grin, his sword whistling as it left the scabbard. If that was the signal the other squelchy, soft bodied things dropped from the ceiling, bouncing the right way up as they landed. They bounced shocking well, Kaelin having to duck as one came flying towards her. Hat buzzed and fluttered away after Ulrich, apparently deciding that he had the best idea of the lot. Jeremiah opened his mouth to snap at the glowing insect and then, as a cave octopod bounced towards him, tentacles lashing through the air behind it, he thought better of it and set off after Hat, huffing as his boots slapped over the damp stone.

Kaelin leapt away from a group of the bouncing, buffeting things, blowing into Haggis as she did so, aware that the flabby balls of nastiness were closing in on her from all sides. They would have almost been comical, with their bouncing gait and the noise they made, which Kaelin could only liken to the sound of an underinflated football being kicked about, but the snapping, gnashing teeth at one end totally destroyed her desire to laugh. Those fangs were far too big and nasty to be funny.  The circle closed in.

Haggis' blast echoed and hummed through the dark, making the stalactites ring and the shadows shiver. The bouncing, closing noose disintegrated as the cave octopods leapt in every way possible, scattered by the sound, the buzzing thrum of Haggis' music a sensation that they had never had to experience before.

Whooping Thorian perused them, blade sheering through bulgy bodies like a bat through an over ripe pumpkin, sending splatters arching into the air. Several had the misfortune of bouncing into Ulrich's path. Blades glittering, Ulrich didn't slow, making it to the arch way of their exit, leaving quivering masses in his trail. Jeremiah grimaced as his foot came down in one of the unfortunate piles, the noise truly dreadful and the smell was even worse.

"If you have just ruined my shoes..." he grumbled as he passed Ulrich.

"I would have thought those boots of yours need replacing after all the spiders that have gnawed on them," Ulrich smiled, blade striking out to dissect an octopod that didn't get the memo that this dinner wasn't worth the price.

"Yes, well," Jeremiah grouched, "There is such a thing as standards."

"Well if you could leaned a hand here," Ulrich flicked the tip of his swords through another pair of attacking octopods, keeping the line of retreat open for Kaelin and Thorian, "That would be a much higher standard than these things have. But of course, if the great and wise Jeremiah is just too tired to aid a friend in need, then I'm sure that his god wouldn't mind him missing out on a moment or two of distruction."

Jeremiah frowned at Ulrich, sure that he was taking the frack out of him but the reminder that his god wasn't overly happy with him at the moment made him draw himself up and spread his hands wide, muttering a pray for destruction and terror upon the enemies before him. The shadows clawed and writhed up off the floor and out of the gaps between the stalagmites, croaking and groaning like souls in torment, come to gather the damned. The octopods squealed and leapt even higher, bouncing off of the stone around them as they stopped trying to direct where they were going, merely trying to leap away from the horrors that shrieked and billowed after them.

Thorian was whooping and laughing in the middle of the cavern, sword blurring through the air in huge, sweeping arches that sent pieces of octopods flying in all directions. However, none of the others seemed to be able to realize that they should just give up trying to claim this food source and concentrate on the carrion that was now littering the floor and in some places the walls.

Kaelin ducked again as another sludgy ball of bad attitude sailed biting past her ear. She drew in another huge breath and blew. Haggis bellowed and even Jeremiah felt the chill lick up his spine. He stumbled back several paces before he managed to make his legs lock in place. The octopods went into a frenzy, bouncing and leaping away from things that were not even there.

With a final sweep, Thorian dispatched the last of the octopods near him and looked round. The last three octopods were bouncing away between the stacks of dribbled stone, soft, floppy noise the most flatulent retreat ever.

"That was a nice little fight," he grinned and cleaned his sword. As he went to put it back in its scabbard he paused. "What's this?"

Pale blue lights were drifting across the ceiling and the walls, swarming and billowing like skeins of snow in a blizzard. Jeremiah hopped back as a stream of them came scuttling over the floor but the lights parted round his boots and flowed on, piling up on the remains of the octopods, clustering around even the smears of fluids on the floor.

Kaelin stared as the lights piled up and thickened on the floor, their glow ever increasing until it rose up their legs, even while the source stayed trailing and running like water. Taking a risk she leaned down to stare at them even closer.

"They're some sort of bug," she observed, "Their heads are glowing. Rather like fireflies but it's their heads that are glowing not their butts. They also don't have wings. Any idea if they are dangerous?"

"Give me a moment," Ulrich called and fished out the book Risgath had given them. He thumbed through it, the growing light bright enough to read by now if he tilted the book in the right direction. Hat buzzed back to Jeremiah's miter, apparently aggrieved that he was not longer the brightest thing in the room.

"Ah here it is," Ulrich called, "They are kervead, a type of bug which appears to form the bottom of the food chain in the Underworld. They are scavengers and will usually avoid healthy individuals but it is not a good idea to make camps near were there have been large numbers of casualties or injuries in a recent time as they have been known to... burrow into open wounds and they will try to... gain entry into sleeping bodies if something has attracted them in large numbers to an area. The illustrations are fairly graphic." He looked slightly nauseated.

Kaelin sidled her way over to his elbow and peered at the books pages.

"Um," she observed, "Well I've never seen that bone before. Just out of interest and while you have that book to hand, any idea what those pillars of living stone were, you know the ones that tried to turn us into lunch earlier."

"Oh them," Ulrich flicker a few pages over, "Lashers, immobile ambush predators that once they take root can no longer move so they grow those long, whip like tentacles to ensnare prey and drew it within reach of those teeth. According to this they are why the Ash Elves never travel in anything less than a dozen, a single person on their own have no chance against a lasher and as a small group we are still at risk of being taken out by them. Apparently we have been lucky so far as they are usually planted in larger groups than we have come across so far."

"What does all that mean?" Thorian asked scratching his head, frowning, not shifting his feet as the kerveads flowed over his boots and away to get at the food source he had provided.

"It means that if you trip over now these bugs will try to crawl up you nose to make a nest inside your overly spacious skull," Jeremiah called out, his tone not overly pleasant. Ulrich snapped the book shut and turned, ready to throw it at the savage priest but he didn't get that far.

"Oh!" Thorian's eyes went wide, "They like big heads!" He held his arms out and lifted his foot with extreme caution. "I suppose this," he lift his other foot with equal caution, "If the trouble of being such a big guy," he lifted a foot again and set it down with immense care, "Someone always fancies a part of you." He stepped and stepped again, sweating with the effort of not falling over, "Though I still don't understand why those pretty ladies back in big city were asking about my marrow. I don't even like vegetables." He looked up to see their expressions. "What?"

"Where you by any chance in a street where the houses had red lanterns outside their doors?" Jeremiah wasn't able to quite suppress a grin.

"No," Thorian frowned, then brightened, "There was a red candle in the window though."

"That explains it then," Jeremiah turned away with a grin.

"What?" Thorian kept stepping with extreme care until he was out of the shifting, rippling tide, "Explains what?"

"We'll tell you later," Kaelin promised as she stepped up beside them and then they turned to the tunnel to discover that this time Jeremiah had decided to take point, striding down the throat of stone and leaving them to trail in his wake.

"Unlike you to be first into the breach," Ulrich observed as he tucked the book away.

"As you so kindly informed us, these things have a habit of crawling inside wounds," Jeremiah didn't stop, "And I happen to have wounded boots. I just don't fancy having some of these things nibbling at my toes."

"Someone has a thing about bugs," Kaelin muttered as she followed Ulrich into the darker tunnel.

"We may have to remember this fact in future," Ulrich winked over his shoulder at her, "In case our esteemed friend needs to have a lesson or two in humility."

"Not spiders though," Kaelin observed, "He doesn't have a problem with spiders."

"You are quite right there," Ulrich nodded as they bimbled along at Jeremiah's pace, "I have to admit I'd very nearly forgotten about the giant spider he'd had as a pet for a while."

"I hadn't," Thorian shuddered, "It had a hole in its head."

They had all by then recognized the issue with allowing Jeremiah to lead, left by his own devices the priest did not go much faster than an amble, which was rather frustrating when they wished to get on with the day. If nothing else, the memory of the breakfast they had shared with Black Randle was beginning to fade but none of them thought that eating some where that the kerveads were swarming would be a sensible idea. Questions about whether they were going to make to any where today, or even next week, simple dripped off of Jeremiah like water off of a well greased pig and hints that picking up the pace might be a good idea also seemed to have no effect.

Ulrich's patience ran out at last and he tried to barge his way passed Jeremiah with barely a muttered 'excuse me'. Turned out to be a mistake as the priest simply stepped into the way of Ulrich's attempts, bouncing him backwards off of his bulk. However, Jeremiah did not have it all his own way. Ulrich may have acted like a ball being bounced off of a wall but their collision did make Jeremiah stumble slightly, pushing him forward with more than his usual speed. There was a grunt and a soft sound, not unlike the clap of cupped hands and Jeremiah juddered to a halt.

After a moment he wiggled.

A moment after that he wriggled.

After that he writhed.

"Um," he muttered, "Um." He tried breathing in. He tried breathing out. He tried sucking in his girth, which as he didn't have a waist as such but rather more of an equator, didn't help that much.

"Ah," he stopped struggling, "I appear to be stuck." Kaelin sniggered.

"That is all very well," Jeremiah observed, "But unless you wish to take a trip back through the mushroom cave, I suggest you find a way of getting me unstuck."

"Well I suppose we could all just sit here and wait until he thins down enough to become unstuck," Ulrich grinned.

"How long do you think that would take?" Kaelin asked, rubbing her chin, "Couple of months?"

"Oh at least," Ulrich nodded, "Maybe more, maybe less."

Jeremiah growled and fought with the pinch of the rock around him.

"Only problem is that the kerveads would probably smell him long before then and come looking," Kaelin noted, "Now having a couple of dozen of them wriggle up his nose and other possible places, might make him thin down a lot quicker but we would rather be in the way of the kerveads passing though and it sounds like they don't distinguish that well between the trapped and the still mobile. What would happen if we squashed any of them?"

"You would have just painted yourself with a food source and drawn them to you," Ulrich noted.

"And I take it that they would just keep coming, no matter how many you crushed?" Kaelin asked.

"If anything the more you crushed the more would be drawn to you," Ulrich had a quick flick through the book.

"Um," Kaelin rubbed her chin again, "By the sounds of it a war of attrition and not one we could win. So that's not an option. Do you have any butter on you?"

"I am not a lobster!" Jeeremiah exclaimed.

"Unfortunately not," Ulrich ignored him, "Nor any lard, which would have been more appropriate."

Jeremiah growled and wriggled again, muttering swear words and curses. It was not helped by the fact that he could suddenly sense a deep and abiding pleasure at this scene. His own god was looking on and was highly amused by the events. He clamped his lips shut. Now that he had seen his God in all his glory he dared not antagonize him.

"So what to do?" Ulrich muttered, going up behind Jeremiah and leaning back on him as if he was the most well cushioned public leaning post ever, "Can't wait it out, can't butter him up, if we pull him out we'll just have the same problem all over again. Do you have any ideas Thorian?"

Thorian stratched behind an ear for a moment and then he grinned.

"We could try orc magic!" he suggested.

"Oh no!" Jeremiah yelled, "Not that!"

"Oh go on," Kaelin asked, eyes bright, "Tell us more?"

"It goes something like this," Thorian grinned and walked up to the now frantically wriggling Jeremiah, "Righteous boot to butt!"

The blow landed like a thunderclap and Jeremiah, with a tearing sound and a pop like a cork, shot forward down the tunnel, landing in a very undignified heap in the dust. After a moment he started standing up and then stopped.

"My dear Jeremiah," Ulrich grinned, "Is there a problem with your sudden freedom?"

"No, no, everything is fine absolutely fine," Jeremiah's smile seemed only the tiniest smidgen fake as he straightened fully, "But I am afraid that I am going to have to send the tailor's bill to you Thorian as your excessive use of force and total lack of tack have rather render my trousers more airier than they were prior to this moment."

"Er, what does he mean?" Thorian turned to Kaelin in his confusion.

"You ripped his trousers," Kaelin rolled her eyes, folding her arms around Haggis.

"Er," Thorian scratched his head again, "Sorry, you still lost me. What are trousers?"

"Seriously?" Kaelin blinked at him, "You're wearing a pair."

"I am?" Thorian now looked a little worried, finding out that he was wearing a piece of clothing that he had no idea he was dressed in. He started looking about himself, craning his neck to try and check over his shoulder.

"On your legs!" Kaelin exclaimed in exasperation, "Seriously man!"

"Oh you mean mah draws!" Thorian brightened in dawning understanding, "Oh, so that means I've put a hole in his..."

"Yes spare us the details please," Ulrich shuddered, mental images that he did not want to play host to trying to creep in via his imagination. That was the problem of having a very active imagination, sometimes he didn't like what it was imagining.

"My dear Ulrich," Jeremiah smiled, "I was unaware that you found such a little thing as distressed clothing upsetting. I'm sure that we will all make the effort to make sure we do not mention it again. Or could it be that you are uncomfortable with something else? Do you have a little secret that you would like to tell us?"

"You know something, I do have a fair number of skeletons locked in my cupboard," Ulrich's look had gone very flat and cold, "Would you like to know what they are?"

"Oh tell me more," Jeremiah grinned.

"Well, so sorry and all that, old bean," Ulrich suddenly smiled, "But I keep my cupboard locked so you can't. Life can be so full of disappointments, can't it?"

"It can indeed," Jeremiah grimaced, "It can indeed." He turned and started leading the way down the dusty throat of stone again but this time he stepped it out a little more willingly, so at least he had learnt from that mistake. It was still uncomfortably narrow, the rough walls catching at sleeve and pack, making Kaelin hug Haggis even closer.

The opening out of the tunnel was so sudden and unexpected that they stumbled into the cavern before they realized it. The ceiling arched high, the path curved away from them down to their right with two possible paths bending away down to a very recognizable area. Ulrich looked to his left and saw the path way arch up and over a bridge leading to the third exit of the cavern. He looked back to the right and saw a tall pillar of rock look at them with one red eye and then snap said eye shut again and try to be still so hard that it actually vibrated, whimpering quietly to itself.

"We've been going in circles!" he exclaimed, his voice echoing in the large space.

"A circle, a circle," Jeremiah corrected, "It is important to keep these things in perspective, My dear Ulrich."

"Perspective?" Ulrich asked in a dangerously flat and controlled voice, "Perspective? Perspective. Alright, let's try perspective-ing this." He rounded on Jeremiah, "We have spent hours traipsing around a corner of the most dangerous environment on this world, making so much noise I am surprised that we haven't wakened this dead, in fact, we did wake the dead, though where you're magic managed to find them I don't know because usual the scavengers in this place render down even the bones. So we have been announcing to everyone and their mothers that we are here pocking our noses in where they shouldn't be, we have killed several dozen things, had hallucinogenic spores invade our minds and leave us with the gods only know what long term effects and we are no closer to finding out what the hell is the problem down here and we are certainly have no clue about how to fix it, especially as, being male, the Ash elves are more likely to kill us on sight than listen to a word we damn well say. On top of that we have no idea if there is a safe space any where around here to have a rest break. Tell me, have I left out anything in your perspective?"

Jeremiah didn't say a thing, just glared in sullen anger.

"Didn't think so," Ulrich turned his back on him and walked away. Behind him, Jeremiah straightened and putting his hands together, started muttering what should have been a pray but sounded more like a curse. Kaelin's ear twitched back as she followed Ulrich but her attention was focused else where as they stepped on to the wider part of the walk way, where the two possible paths rejoined. Something twitched in her periphery vision and she turned her head. Something was trailing across the ground something that was slithering like a serpent towards...

"Look out!" she yelled and lunged forward, knocking Ulrich over but also rolling them out of the way of the tentacle that whip cracked through the space Ulrich had been in a second later.

"You lot again?" Thorian grinned as he drew his sword, "You lot don't learn, do yah?"

Jeremiah went to step back but then something brushed across the back of his knees. With a yell he jumped forward and as if that was the signal the eyes opened up. Great blinking, red orbs that glared with a hunger and desperation that left the soul cold and then the rest opened up their eyes.

"Oh squit," Kaelin muttered, kneeling, trapped in the circle of predators that had no respect for a fellow carnivore, the lashing, hissing tentacles swaying from side to side as they reared high over head.

"Whoop!" Thorian laughed and lashed out at the one nearest him, sending half a dozen tentacles arching away, twitching and flopping, some of them tumbling over the edge into the lightless depths below. The lasher howled, mouth stretching wide as the one planted beside it struck out, trying to wrap its tendrils around Thorian's sword and arms. "Oy! Get off!"

Jeremiah drew himself up, prayers to his darksome god, chants of death, destruction and desolation, spilling from his lips. The shadows creaked and groaned, hideous moaning that were, at once, both the expression of pain and the cause of even more pain, as the things that were both shadows and something else crawled up out of the dark spaces, their overlong, spindle fingers leaving prints of nightmare on any surface they touched.

Kaelin felt her jaws creak and crack as her other nature jumped forward without permission, instinct seizing her body as her rational mind screamed in terror. There was just something about the shadow forms, lanky, disproportionate anatomy, unstable bodies made of shadow and spite, eyes, where she could see eyes, sightless white orbs that were brim full of a void, bereft of any soul or meaning. They were dead center of the uncanny valley and their manifestation made her want to shriek like a banshee. Locking her teeth together did no good, denied that expression, her terror whip corded back on itself and took control of her body, the change savagely painful after so long being denied and with such a driving force behind it.

Ulrich danced in a web of tendrils and tentacles, twin swords flicking beams of light around the cavern as he ducked and wove through the lashing cracking maze of death. Every time the lashers tried to lay hold of him wasn't where he had been a second before and he punished every failure to grasp him with the sharp edge of bitter, elf forged steel. The lashers screamed and shrieked, shorn off limps tumbling and twitching across the ground in a tangled mass of pain and thick, dark blood, their central columns quivering with agony and rage. They were not used to food that fought back so ferociously and with such success. Bared, backwards curving fangs gnashed and clashed as their eyes popped and goggled with rage at this spinning, swinging, dancing thing that sang as it cut and scored them with its sharp and deadly steel claws.

Thorian stumbled but kept his feet as he was drawn ever closer to the pair of lashers that had hold of his arms and sword. They had failed to grasp his legs, too busy fighting the shadow beings that Jeremiah had summoned, even through their attacks passed through those creaking, groaning masses without result but that was all good, as far as Thorian was concerned. He fought on the end of their cords, tugging and lunging but they relentlessly drew him in. He fought, sweating and grunting as he struggled to keep away from them. There was a malevolent glee in their eyes as he came close, tongues flicking around stone dark lips as he came within breathing space of them.

Then Thorian grinned.

For a second the lashers hesitated, unbalanced by a prey that seemed to quiet enjoy the prospect of being eaten and then Thorian braced himself against their grip and jumped, planting one foot on each of them.

"My turn!" he bellowed and with a heave that could have shifted the world, he wrenched backwards. The lashers screamed as their tentacles tore out at their roots, rock like skin splintering with the popping bangs that preceded a landslide. Dark fluid splashed across stone, one of them collapsing in on itself as it breathed one last rattling sigh. The other, however, was not quite done, one last tentacle still attached, despite its mighty wrenching and it snapped tight, yanking Thorian towards its waiting maw, a raw sound cry of hunger billowing up from inside its throat. Thorian rolled and as it snapped at him he plunged his sword between its crashing teeth. With one last guttural noise it gagged on his blade and was still. Thorian stood, struggling out of the entwining tentacles.

Kaelin shrieked, instinct finally winning out over terror and she threw herself at the closest lasher. Ulrich took a step back as she smashed into it was a bestial sounding roar. The lasher screamed as her claws found its eye. It screamed again, whipping at her and then the great red globe pulled out with a thick sucking sound. Kaelin smashed the orb into the lasher's gaping maw and then slammed both fists down on the top of its conical peak. Not only did the top of its head collapse under the blow, its teeth also snapped together.

"Oh steady on," Ulrich back away with a look of distaste as Kaelin hauled on the remaining whipping tentacles as the lasher choked and throttled. Kaelin's claws drove into the bleeding roots of the tentacles and then she strained, muscles in her face, neck and back rippling as the lashers creaked and screamed. With the noise of tearing meat, it came apart from its base and toppled into the dark beyond the edge of the path, howling as it vanished into the inky depths. Kaelin's roar of victory did not sound like a wolf to Ulrich, more like the great maned cat one of his father's friends had kept in a cage on his land. He cut out the other lasher almost without thought as it reached for him, his focus more on Kaelin as she shook and trembled, the blooded beast beginning to recede from her eyes as Jeremiah's little pets began to crawl back to whatever plain of horror they had come from, sliding into non animated shadows and finally falling silent.

With a whoop of joy, Thorian jumped across the cavern and carved through the last two lashers with a single sweep of his sword.

"How's that?" he yelled with glee.

"Pretty good," Ulrich observed, "If you keep up the practicing, you might one day be as good as me." It was easier to tease Thorian than admit that Kaelin had scared him, she had scared him good. He had almost been joking when he had said to Black Randle about her having some blistering anger manage issues but he had forgotten just how scary it could be when she lost control. Reflecting on it, he released that she hadn't lost control since they had left the Wizard's tower and he realized that he had somehow come to the conclusion that she was better now, that she was in control and the wolf wouldn't be an issue any more. It looked as if he had been horribly, dangerously wrong. The wolf in her was still very much there and it had resented all the time she had managed to kept it on a leash, building up its anger and its rage to the point that it had taken only the right trigger point to let it out of its cage, ready to rip and tear.

"Oy!" Thorian pouted, "Who was it who just took out four of those buggers? How many did you manage? Just the two!"

"That is true but if you hadn't been lucky then you would have wound up dead when those two caught you," Ulrich flicked his sword tip towards where the managed stumps slumped in the shadows.

"Luck nothing," Thorian argued, "That was skill."

"I would have to beg to differ on that score," Jeremiah argued, stepping up, "If it wasn't for the intervention of my god then they would have been able to wrap you up piecemeal and divide you out."

Thorian frowned for a moment and then shrugged.

"Yeah, alright, I guess those noisy burgers you called up did keep them busy," he admitted, "Thanks for that my old chum!"

He slapped Jeremiah on the back so hard the priest stumbled and coughed.

"Yes well, happy to be of service and all that," he gasped, slightly winded. Ulrich had already turned away.

Kaelin was knelt on the edge of their stony perch, shaking and gasping quietly.

Ulrich knelt down beside her and took hold of her shoulder.

"Are you okay?" he asked and then shook himself, "No, that was a stupid question; are you going to be okay?"

She managed something that might have been a proto smile under other circumstances and brushed the hair back from her face.

"Not... not right now I'm not," she admitted and then grimaced at the fact that she'd just smeared goo into her hair, "But later, maybe later. Just haven't had a moment... a moment like that for a while, rather took me by surprise."

"I have to admit that those lasher things are not pleasant foes to face," Ulrich smiled at her, almost surprised that she had confessed that much to him.

"It wasn't... wasn't them," Kaelin shuddered as she admitted it, "It was those other things, the ones Jeremiah called up. Gods." She shuddered again. "I don't know what they are but they... they... they are horrors."

"I have to admit that I found them more than a little... off putting," Ulrich admitted, "I have to admit, I do seriously wonder what god our friend is worshiping because said god doesn't appear to be the one usually worshiped at that abbey."

"He has a book," Kaelin said quietly, "It's what he stole that night at the abbey. There was an alarm charm attached to it so they didn't want... Do you hear that?"

"Hear what?" Ulrich frowned and then his gaze was drawn to the edge of the black abyss they were by. Kaelin was on her feet and backing away, eyes fixed to the edge and Ulrich followed her.

"What's up?" Thorian asked, tilting his head over when he saw their behavior, then he sniffed. "Can you smell that?" he asked Jeremiah.

"I..." Jeremiah opened his mouth to give a cutting reply but the words died on his tongue.

Some thing, something thick but sharply pointed, with two clawed black toes came up and gripped the edge of the rocky shelf then far along, impossible far along, another reared out of the dark to grip and strain.

Hat buzzed off of Jeremiah's miter and did a series of impossible loops, thrumming with panic.

"Hat!" Jeremiah snapped as the darkness crowded in, threatening to swallow them, "Come back here!"

The moth juddered, instinct fighting with instruction but it hovered a little lower, giving them just enough light to see the cluster of great, hairy limbs at the edge had multiplied to a number not designed to comfort.

"Oh, that's not good," Thorian pulled his sword from its scabbard as the multi-jointed, clawed, black legs strained.

"Oh good sir, what thing a say," a light, melodious voice purred in the shadows. A head rose out of the shadows, crowned with a mane of long white hair that fell around the shoulders in a fetching manner. The eyes sparkled, the lips full and pouting as she laced her fingers together and rested her chin on them in a most delightful manner, elbows perched on the edge of the stone lip.

"Forgive our uncouth companion, my dear lady," Jeremiah smiled and bowed, "We did not expect to find such a vision of loveliness in this realm. Our experiences so far have lead us to look only for the bane and not have the wit to see that the dark can hold such beautiful glory such as yourself."

"You think me beautiful?" she smiled, turning her head coquettishly and laughing, a trilling, thrilling sound.

"Of course dear lady, who could not be smitten with your beauty?" Jeremiah continued, "It is as a perfect gem, shining in the darkness."

"Oh but surely you are a priest?" she brushed her fall of hair away from her dark, almost coal grey face, tucking it behind a long and pointed ear, "Are not such delights forbidden to you?"

"The... satisfaction of such base desires that interfere with my dedication to my god is forbidden to me," Jeremiah had stepped towards the lady without realizing, "But that does not forbid my admiration for such glorious elegance and grace."

She wriggled happily, wrapping her arms across her front, "Oh, tell me more." Kaelin turning her face away in disgust from where her companions had imbecilic smiles on their faces, anyone would think they hadn't ever seen a pretty lady and then she frowned, noticing the feet, if you could call them that, flexing on the edge of the stone. Her eyes flicked from the elf's beautiful face to the legs and back again. Something was not quite right here.

"Surely such a refined lady such as yourself has no need for such a thing as base flattery," Jeremiah stepped closer, smiling as if bliss already had ensured him completely and judging from his eyes it had. The other two seemed to be just as hypnotized but Thorian was frowning and he hadn't put his sword away.

"I'm not sure about this," he kept repeating, "I'm not sure at all."

"Indeed the greatest poet in the land would be hard pushed to be able to describe your merits, good lady," Jeremiah stepped closer, "The sun and moon would bow down before you and weep that they were out shone."

She smiled, gleeful mischief dancing in her eyes. She stretched out her hand to him.

She shrieked, making their heads ring like a opera singer hitting and holding a perfect note, as Kaelin's blade scoring a deep slash across one long gripping limb, the chitin parting with a sharp crack. She reared up over the edge, murder in her face and Jeremiah stumbled back with a squeal as the whole of her form came into the light.

To the waist she was a beautiful, seductive Ash Elf, who's frustrated hunger still shone through her rage. Below the waist though... Ulrich stumbled back with a exclamation of disgust.

Below the waist the bloated body of an impossibly large spider bulged and trembled, eight black, hairy legs dragging her bulk up and on to the ledge, Hat's ghostly blue glow shining off of the red hour glass shaped mark on her high humped back.

"Pathetic little vermin!" she spat baring down on Kaelin, "You dare! Do you think I don't know what you are? Dog stink! Wolf pup! I know what you are, I smell the curse curling through your veins. You think you are some how better than you sires? You are no different than they are! You are a flea, a vermin, a parasitic worm crawling through the flesh of your host!"

Jeremiah, seeing her attention was no longer on him, pressed his hands together and started whispering a pray to his god, entreating him to blind the creature to their actions, to become so lost in her own pride that she didn't consider them a threat. It worked, after a fashion.

"You are not even worthy of being a portion in my larder," the thing scuttled towards Kaelin, legs rippling. Kaelin backed up, tripped and fell and that was what saved her, the thing rearing back as Kaelin's blade came up, aimed at her venerable underbelly.

"I will drain you dry and leave your husk for the kerveads to lay their eggs in," it smiled down at Kaelin, baring fangs that shone green in the light, "How would you like that? How would you like the feel of their crawling, squirming maggots crawling in and out of your eyes sockets, soft and slimy and writhing as they nibble away at your brain and ooze out your nose, flooding from your mouth as they slip down your throat and wriggle under your skin?"

"You don't touch the Goddess!" a loud, squeaky voice squealed through the air, causing the thing to spin round, a very complicated maneuver as her legs sort to turn her and not get tangled with themselves at the same time.

Pouring over the land bridge, swarming over the lasher that tried to bar their way, a mass of goblins came flowing, rusty blades and stubby clubs waving in their hands. Leading the charge, the goblin that had asked to learn came howling, a divine war cry stretching his mouth wide.

"You dare you little vermin!?!" the Elf spider reared on to her back legs and then stamped down at the attacking goblins but they were determined to come to their Goddess' aid and they jumped and span, chopping at the clicking black columns that stamped and trampled down at them, the Elf spider screaming and spitting in a rage that still somehow appeared grotesquely endearing.

"Guess you were a naughty girl," Ulrich grinned as he lunged to the attack, "What went wrong? Matriarch discovered your plot to depose her before you were ready?"

The Elf spider shrieked and swung a leg in his direction. He ducked as it spun by over head.

"I've read about your kind see," his elf forged blade left a long cut up the next limb at swung towards her, "Your the disgraced ones, the ones who have failed." She howled and trampled forward only to be driven back, one leg cut short and trailing blood.

"You can't even have children any more to gain a little respect," Ulrich knew provoking her was a risky gamble but while she was concentrating on him, Thorian could hack at her at will, "You're barren, you're sterile and you can't even enjoy yourself any more."

The noise that broke from her throat was more of a wail and for a second Ulrich felt a little ashamed at striking so low and then she spat, the stream of venom hissing and spitting where it splattered over the rock as he ducked.

"You think I am unwanted?" she snarled, "You are a fool! Come me!"

The last words had a strange resonance that shivered and trembled in the air and then dark figures leapt from the tunnel mouth they had been trying to reach. The Elf Spider laughed then.

"You should never be making load noises in the Underworld," she grinned.

"Oh shouldn't you?" Kaelin asked and pocked the blow stick of Haggis into her mouth, blowing fit to burst. Haggis responded with a will. The goblins, who had drawn back, faces afraid, trembling at the sight of the Ash Elves and whimpering when one of them uncoiled a whip and flicked it at them, suddenly roared as one creature and charged, Thorian joining them in a charging, shrieking mass. The Ash Elves were obviously not expecting creatures who they were used to bullying and beating to rise up righteous and strike back, the one flicking out with the whip going down as half a dozen goblins piled into him and just hit and hit and hit with their little blades, shrieking and squealing the whole time.

"You scum!" another barked and slashed at the writhing, wriggling heap and several goblins went tumbling and rolling in pieces but next second Thorian's mighty sword crashed into the elf and snapped him like a damp twig.

The Elf Spider was not having any better of it, Ulrich driving her out along the stone bridge, Jeremiah muttering and mumbling as the shadows rose, groaning and crying from the rocks around him. The Elf Spider seemed to find said shadows as distressing as Kaelin had, screaming and striking out as they clustered round her, their hand prints showing up as momentary white splotches on her carapace.

"Stop it! Stop it!" she squealed, "You horrible like man! You can't do this, it's not fair!"

"All's fair in love and war," Jeremiah replied smugly as Hat came back and landed on his miter. She squealed and wailed as Haggis' music swirled and twined through the air, driving the goblins on to greater heights of strength, Thorian barreling gleefully along side them.

Used to being the biggest bullies in the play ground, used to being able to cow every other species into submission and most especially used to being able to kick goblins around as if they were worthless nothings, the Ash Elves found themselves overwhelmed and over run, the last of them falling as goblins literally climbed up them so they could hang on to elf ears with one hand while they stabbed with the other. Granted one elf went down as a goblin hung on to both ears and smacked it with his forehead, repeatedly, until there was a solid sounding crack. Thorian laughed at that one, the goblins cheering round his knees, jumping up and down on their old enemies to make sure they had won.

The Elf Spider shrieked, legs slashing at Ulrich, squealing as his elf forged blade gouged a deep injury in her side. Then he stumbled.

"You! You I shall kill, you worthless piece of filth!" she hissed, rearing up on to her back legs. Ulrich flinched and tried to roll out her way and nearly pitched himself off of the edge, stopped only just in time. He rolled back the other way as a leg crashed down where his head had been a second before. She laughed, a sound that still made him smile, even as another leg stamped down to block his path that way. Pulling himself on to his elbows, he tried to shuffle backwards, the terrible, beautiful face high above him.

With a gurgling cheer she reared on to her back legs again, front ones locking into straight spears aimed at his heart. She came down.

Ulrich flinched and closed his eyes as a gristly crunch rang out. After a moment, he realized that he wasn't in pain and he opened his eye a crack. Thorian stood over him, sword out stretched and the Elf Spider had impaled herself full length on that blade, the point piercing through her waist and buried all the way back into her spider body. A pained spasm crossed her face and she croaked. Thorian pushed her back and she tottered and then her back feet slipped off the edge of the stone bridge. With a sigh she leaned back and slid off the blade, toppling into the black abyss below, her broken form falling away into the dark below. There was no sound of her landing.

"You alright?" Thorian turned and pulled Ulrich to his feet.

"Right now, thanks to you," Ulrich nodded, "I owe you one."

"No drinks," Thorian said darkly.

"Unless its that ginger concoction at the Battered Bugle," Ulrich grinned, "See which of us winds up with the bigger bonfire in our bellies."

"I'd forgotten I'd told you about that!" Thorian slapped him on the back, "Now that sounds like a deal!"

"Yeah,"Ulrich rubbed his shoulder, "Sounds like a plan."

Jeremiah rolled his eyes and turned to where the elves lay, bloodied and still on the stone floor. Drawing himself up he started to chant. Kaelin shuddered and turned away as the shadow lined light coiled through the air and poured down the throats of the seven most intact corpses. With a creaking groan, the deceased elves rose, bodies hanging in disjointed uncomfortable poses, slack jawed and silent. The goblins squeaked and fell back, staring at the blue glow that filled the eye sockets of the elves. They chittered to each other, fingers forking in signs to drive off the evil eye.

"Blessed be the Goddess of the Thunder Voice!" Jeremiah proclaimed, "Bow to her holy name for she sends these to be your servants and slaves. Thus has the Goddess of the Thunder Voice judged them and found them wanting. They self serve out their punishment serving you. Blessed be the Goddess of the Thunder Voice."

The goblins stared at him, obviously confused by what he meant, except the one who lead them. Deep in his eyes that other presence stirred a fin.

"You," the goblin turned to the nearest elf, "Kiss my boot!" He jabbed a finger at the toe of aforementioned boot.

The elf, with no change of expression, got down its knees and did as instructed. The goblins blinked, stunned for a moment and then they burst out in a cacophony of squeaks and cried but it was a jubilant  noise, full of a laughter not heard in a goblin's voice before - relief. Kaelin opened her mouth to protest and found herself unable to kill their joy.

"Parf," Haggis said, a note of worry in his music.

"I know, I know," Kaelin stroked Haggis, lip trembling, facing down the terror that every god faces in the end - the fear of disappointing their followers. She looked at the grinning Jeremiah, the Mage of Thunder and knew, knew, that he understood that she wouldn't be able to turn the goblins away but that if it went south, if she failed to live up to their expectations, then she was the only one who would feel guilty about it.

For the first time she felt the hatred that her grandfather had often described coiling through her guts.

Tuesday 30 April 2024

Draconic Shennanigans - Episode 16

Chapter Sixteen: Trips in the Dark

 "On wards dear friends," Jeremiah proclaimed gesturing grandly to the frowning mouth of the cave, "Once more into the breach we boldly go for the glory of the kingdom!"

"We few, we lucky few," Ulrich muttered as an aside.

"We band of buggered," Kaelin did not bother to keep her voice down.

"Ah come on it can't be that bad," Thorian grinned, ducking under the lip of the cave mouth, "See? You can even stand up in here."

"Oh well," Ulrich shrugged, "Might as well get on with it, the sooner we start, hopefully the sooner we will be done." He ducked in besides Thorian and looked around. The rock ways dripped with moisture and a smell of damp soil rose from the ground under their feet. The stone stretched, grey and darkening to black as it sloped gently away from them, down into Hestia, inviting the unwary into the unknown.

"Oh," said Jeremiah, "Is there not enough room in here? Shall I wait outside?"

"Oh get on with it!" Kaelin gave him a shove in the back, pushing him forward, "We haven't got all day."

Thorian strode into the darkness, humming a tune to himself as his eyes adapted to the growing gloom, Ulrich keeping pace with it.

"Allow me dear," Jeremiah beamed, "I know it is suppose to be ladies first but in dangerous situations a proper gentleman takes the risks."

"You? A proper gentleman?" Kaelin raised an eyebrow as Jeremiah stepped ahead of her, Hat swaying on the point of his miter, the giant moths blue glow brightening as the sunlight faded behind them. Kaelin had gone several paces forward when she realized that Jeremiah had put her at the back of the team, the second most dangerous location, while he took the most comfortable position of in the middle. She sighed and stepped forward.

 The gloom was only just increasing when Hat buzzed, jerking sideways, knocking Jeremiah's miter askew.

"Hat behave yourself!" Jeremiah snapped, his hands flying up to steady his head gear but Hat would not stop, pulling the miter across the tunnel, "Hat! What has..." Jeremiah's frantic turning had caused him to look up at the area Hat was so desperately trying to get away from. "Oh."

The spider dropped into the tunnel, paps twitching in anticipation. Ulrich turned at Jeremiah's yelp just as the other spider dropped down in front of Thorian.

"It's Thorian time!" Thorian yelped with glee and kicked the spider, his boot lifting the creature up and sending it spinning down the tunnel to shatter against the wall. Jeremiah struck out with his mace of office, missing the spider and knocking a hole in the floor. The spider reared back, fangs dripping and... Ulrich's blades sheered it of its legs and then relieved it of the use of its head.

"One," he said with pride, "And very neatly done."

"Does that mean I beat him?" Thorian asked.

"To the first kill of the day," Jeremiah noted, "But the final score is unclear."

"Oh," Thorian sniffed and then brightened, "Still, got the rest of the day. We can find some more friends to play with down here."

Ulrich and Kaelin just looked at each other and Ulrich slowly shook his head. Thorian's idea of 'friends' and 'play with' where worlds away from what they considered to be the definitions of those words. Kaelin frowned as the tunnel roof dripped water on her head. She stepped sideways and a drip fell on the other side of her head. She sighed the sigh of the long suffering. There was always something. Haggis let out a mournful 'parf' as the drips began to make his bag soggy.

"I am absolutely sure that we will find some more friends down here," Jeremiah smiled, "Would you like to lead on to these new friends, my dear Thorian?"

"Okey dokey," Thorian turned and stepped out with a jaunty stride, whistling a tune.

With an eye roll, Ulrich followed him and some how Jeremiah stepped just so, so that Kaelin couldn't get ahead of him. She curled her lip and made some silent hands gestures at his back, detailing what she thought of him, his ancestors and his preferences. Still karma seemed to have an idea of how to deal with him as the next spider popped out of a disguised entrance and fastened itself to Jeremiah's boot. He went over on his backside with a squawk and before the two in front of him could turn another one popped out of the floor, fangs out and gleaming.

Kaelin unslung Haggis and blew into the pipe with all her strength. The tune raised the hair on every body's body, including the spiders. They seemed to swell up and at the same moment become covered in quills like porcupines. And they attacked.

This time they didn't click, they buzzed, the noise akin to the thrum of some seriously slagged off hornets, venom not so much dripping as splashing from their fangs. The one facing Thorian and Ulrich barreled forward, knocking both of them down but they fell in different directions and the spider span, venom spraying, unable to decide which one of the them to bite first. The one that had Jeremiah by the boot scuttled backward, dragging him along as it shook his leg from side to side, snapping his knee savagely. Jeremiah yelled as his tendons stretched with the abuse.

Ulrich flipped himself on to his feet and lunged straight across the tunnel, sword held out straight before him. The spider made a horrible wet noise as the blade pierced its side and then its legs curled in on themselves as it went into spasm.

Thorian straightened with a roar and his sword scrapped sparks from the tunnel wall as it whirred through the air. The bottom half of the spider slid along the floor, slopping its yellow contents, while its top half flipped through the air and landed upside down, displaying it like an anatomy diagram.

Kaelin let out her breath as Haggis trailed off.

"Well that wasn't the reaction I expected," she admitted, "I expected them to run away."

"Yes well, my dear," Jeremiah stood and straightened his miter, "Perhaps next time you consider what would have happened if there had been more of them in hiding. As much as I appreciate your musical abilities being swarmed by your overly enthusiastic admirers doesn't strike me as a particularly fun way to spend the afternoon."

"Not to mention the fact that anything in these caves probably now know that we are here,"Ulrich observed.

"Goody gum drops!" Thorian beamed, "More fun for us!"

The others all exchanged a look and then hurried after him as the orc crossbreed swung off into the dark. They peered after him, struggling to see in the near perfect gloom as the tunnel turned to the right.

"You, Hat," Jeremiah jabbed a finger up, "Put some effort in." The limp and bedraggled moth buzzed weakly in protest but its blueish glow slowly increased and not a moment too soon as the glimmer of light shone off a bundle of thick ropes barring their path like the worse tangle of granny's knitting ever. Thorian reached out a hand to tear it aside and stepped back.

"Well that's not nice!" he said, trying to shake the stuff off of his hands. It clung. As Jeremiah stepped closer and shone more light on the mess of cables, they realized that every single rope was frayed and covered in loops and strands of fibers. Where Thorian tugged and wrenched at the one he was stuck to a groaning creaking emitted from the fibers, the sound of multiple small animals in pain. In the dark ahead something or several somethings rustled as them came creeping over the knotted mass of silk.

Kaelin's teeth chattered as her skin went cold. There were legs, far too many legs. She thought she'd seen the worst these things could do but now, faced with this hideous trap she knew that they were in the territory of their enemies. Jeremiah however, smiled.

"My turn," he said and drew himself up, chanting words that curdled in the air. The sparks flared around his fingers... and died out. He felt his God, somewhere, somehow, turn his nose up at his pleads.

In the dark ahead the spiders clicked and clacked, the noise a hair raising parody of amusement. Jeremiah inflated.

"Oh great God," he remembered to not mention the name, "Lord of all the cosmos, true King of all realities, look upon these worthless bugs that do mock your humble servant and laugh at your name. Smite them with you holy fire and cast them into the pit of your righteous wraith were they may ever suffer for their derision of your might. May their screams of agony be ever pleasing to your ears."

"I say, steady on old bean," Ulrich muttered.

The fire roared in the enclosed space, tearing through the knotted strands of silk like dragon fire through ice, the heat back blowing on their faces hot enough to steal breath, the threads withering and splitting with a cackling noise of tearing tendons. Something screamed in the sudden flaring light and then the dark came back with an abruptness that made Kaelin blink, trying to see past the purple after glare left on her vision. While she stood trying to see clearly again, something scurried off into the dark, clicking and clacking in panic.

"Well that was something," Thorian grinned and slapped Jeremiah on the shoulder, "Knew you'd get the hang of it eventually."

"Yes, well," Jeremiah recovered from his Thorian induced stumble and straightened his miter, Hat clinging to it, "Give praise to God for his bounteous help. Now on to the glory of victory in his name!"

"Right-o!" Thorian cheered and stepped out with a swinging gait, bellowing an orcish marching song that rang and echoed off the walls.

"And he dared to complain about Haggis letting everything know that we are here," Ulrich muttered as he followed along.

"Have you also noticed he rarely mentions who his God actually is?" Kaelin pointed out, "Anyone would think that he doesn't want people to know who it is that is giving him his power."

"Hum," Ulrich agreed, "You're right there, he doesn't tend to mention his God's name, though I'm sure that I heard him say something on the ship when we faced the Kraken, which could have been a name. I'm not sure though, I was rather distracted at the time."

"I can't say much for said God's taste any way," Kaelin muttered, "If Jeremiah is the best you can get, doesn't exactly encourage new followers to join the flock."

"I heard that," Jeremiah said over his shoulder.

"You were meant to, obviously," Kaelin returned.

Jeremiah opened his mouth to reply and then shut it again. The tunnel had come to an end. The cavern roof arched above them, lost in the gloom while to their right a rift opened out up in the floor, sheer sided straight down into the night eternal. The path just skirted it, passing through an arch of stone that formed a bridge leading to what appeared to be a way out. Silently the team stepped forward, peering into the dusky air, ears cocked as the sounds of something struggling came to them. They squinted round the edge of the rough stone arch.

The path passed between two sheer drops before opening out into a wide platform. In the middle of this platform the spider that had fled from them strained, literally. Long whips were wrapped around its legs, pulling and jerking it in two different directions. The spider wailed, a long hissing, sucking sound that made Ulrich shudder, as its bulk threatening to come apart in the middle.

With a gleeful yell Thorian bounded forward and brought his sword crashing down on one set of whips. They parted with a snap, fluid trailing from their ends as they arched back, the severed ends writhing and twitching on the ground, even as they were dragged along with the spider. The spider screamed as the other set of whips snapped it away to the party's right. 

"Oh God..." Jeremiah squeaked and arched his fingers in the sign to ward off the evil eye. The spider screamed again and then the stalagmite that it was being dragged towards opened a huge, glaring red eye, followed by an even larger, gaping mouth lined with needle pointed, backwards curving teeth. The spider's last scream was cut short as it met those teeth and was sucked in, shredded into oblivion with a gooey splattering noise that turned the stomach.

"Oh my..." Kaelin put her hand over her mouth, "You weren't kidding about this place, Jeremiah. I think I'm actually sorry about what I said a moment ago."

The thing glared at them, its one eye popping in its socket, its long rope like appendages lashing the air as it hissed, a volcanic sound. The ropes stilled.

"It's chosen its prey!" Jeremiah warned. The ropes cracked forward. Thorian was faster. The creature screamed as the lengths of it tentacles flopped to the floor and twitched. It screamed again, flailing at Thorian. The bright sword, snapped and cracked through the air. The thing screamed again and then quietened to moaning as it pulled what was left of its arms back, wrapping their abused lengths around itself and shutting its eye, shuddering and whimpering.

"Not so tough without yah hands... arms... legs... whatever they are, are you?" Thorian snorted. The apparent pillar of pointed stone shuddered and coiled its arms in tighter.

"Look out!" Jeremiah shrieked, jumping about a foot in the air as something lashed passed his feet. Thorian tried to leap but something latched on to one of his boots but warned by Jeremiah's shout he kept his balance, lunging forward with his free foot. He grunted as his legs strained to do the splits but he twisted his torso and hacked at the thing round his ankle. It snapped with the thrum of a parting cable. Something in the dark growled and a red scowling eye opened to fix on Thorian. Like the nest of Medusa, ropes reared up round it. This one seemed to have learnt from the fate of its rival; instead of coming at Thorian in a mass the ropes, they lashed one after another, cracking through the air with the noise of bull whips.

Kaelin already had the blowpipe in her mouth. Haggis' drone echoed round the cavern, counterpoints and harmonies building themselves as her fingers wove speed and agility into Thorian's muscles, his sword appearing to be every where in the gloom all at once.

The thing squalled and the tendrils retreated, their bleeding tips leaving trails across the floor. It glared at them for a moment more and then its eyes snapped shut and it became as still as stone, resolutely ignoring their existence.

"Interesting place," Ulrich observed and tossed a stone over the edge of the rift to their right. The Jeremiah and Kaelin froze, waiting for some horror to decide that it could put up with the noise but having stone thrown at it was just too much. They waited and waited... and waited some more. And some more. And some more after that.

No noise echoed up from the depths and nothing came crawling up out of the depths.

Jeremiah sighed with relief and then turned to look at the walls.

"Anyone see a way out of here?" he asked.

"Well back that way is the way we came in," Ulrich gestured, "Over there, between the members of our welcoming committee is what appears to be a tunnel entrance. Over there is a short cut across the bottomless pit to the path that crosses over the bridge we just past through to what looks like another exit up there. Or we can go the long way round the other edge, which gives us the option of the third exit or carrying on passed that to crosses the bridge."

"A right swirl of a spaghetti tangle," Jeremiah observed.

"What's spaghetti?" Thorian frowned.

"A foreign dish," Jeremiah explained, "Looks like a pile of string but doesn't taste half bad if you can put up with the fiddle it takes to eat it."

"Oh," Thorian sniffed and thought about, "Prefer meat, mah self. You can't go wrong with a good bit of roast meat."

"Unless you burn it," Ulrich chipped it.

"Depends how burnt," Thorian replied, "Burnt on the outside and still soft on the inside can be great."

"True," Ulrich agreed, "True."

"Any way, my dear," Jeremiah interrupted the discussion, addressing Kaelin, "Which way do you think we should go?"

Seeing as it was almost polite, especially after she'd made fun of him, Kaelin actually gave it some thought.

"That one," she pointed at the one closest.

"Lead on then, Sir Thorian," Jeremiah proclaimed grandly, his voice echoing in the chamber, "May you righteously smite anything that stands in our way!"

"Rightly-o!" Thorian beamed and stepped out, boots stomping across the stone. In the gloom to the left side of the entrance way a thin slither of red started opening up, peering cautiously at the group as they approached.

Thorian turned his head and let loose a bellowing roar that bounced and rolled around the cavern, humming among the stalactites and thrumming through the stones beneath their feet.

The red eye snapped opened, staring wide and horrified at them. The mouth opened and then it screamed. It screamed and it screamed and it screamed, a shrill screech that pierced through the air like a talon trying to cut through glass. The ropes leaped up from where they trailed across the path and flashed back to curl round the body of the thing.

It quivered and shook, whimpering and sobbing. The group stared at it. After a moment it peeped at them through its tentacles. Realizing that they were still there, it squealed again and hugged itself even tighter, blubbering like a baby.

After a moment, Ulrich pocked Thorian in the side and pointed to the tunnel entrance. Slowly and carefully they sidled towards it, keeping half an eye on the trembling mess of a thing as it cried. Kaelin paused a moment, biting her lip and then shook her head, turning into the tunnel. She hated leaving anything in that sort of condition, it sounded... gods it sounded like some of her Grandfather's play things but she was also sure it would have eaten her if it had the chance.

She turned her face away from it... and discovered that Jeremiah had managed to bag himself the middle point on the team again. She huffed and stomped along at the back, wondering when the view was going to change.

The tunnel angled away into the gloom, curling to the left this time and gradually the sound of the things distress quietened and fell behind them. Kaelin was glad, it was much more restful listening to the hush and sigh of the falling... Kaelin lifted her head. It wasn't water, the sound was too thick and slow for that but it didn't have the texture of falling snow either. Kaelin frowned. How could snow be falling down here any way? That was ridiculous. No the sound was definitely fluid but not water, it was more like slow bubbling mud, a sort of slow oozing. Maybe of molasses, perhaps, or something equally thick and...

Kaelin turned her head in time to see the last of the thick black gunk splat into the corridor behind her,  ropes of it still clinging to the ceiling, thick as her wrist, black as treacle.

"Um, guys," she took a step backwards away from it, "We may have trouble!"

The puddle heaped up in the middle, bulging upwards as if something under its surface was trying to escape, to burst forth back into the realm of light and air.

"What is it now, my dear Kaelin," Jeremiah said turning, "Surely we need to get on, not be distracted by hearing ghosts in the dark behi...."

The bulging, bubbling mass began to ooze towards them, its surface rippling like the foot of a snail.

"Run! Oh Holy Gods! Run!" Jeremiah yelled, trying to barge passed Ulrich and Thorian. For a moment they all wedged in the corridor. Kaelin screamed as she felt herself start to sink, the acrid stink making her eyes water as her boot heels began to dissolve. The jam ahead popped through the narrow gap and then they were all running pell mell down the tunnel of stone, the black oozing mass coming after them.

Kaelin felt all her hair stand up on end as she realized that she could hear it hissing after them, not the angry hiss of a snake or the hiss of breath, just a chemical hiss of solid matter being dissolved away. Ahead Thorian slipped over and yelped as he cracked his knee caps on the floor. Jeremiah would have simply leapt right over him and kept running but Ulrich stopped to help Thorian up and blocked his flight.

"Hurry! Hurry!" Jeremiah yelled, hands shoving and pushing as he stared back over his shoulder at the creeping sludge that inched ever closer, as unstoppable as a tide. Thorian scrambled at the floor, boots struggling to find traction and Kaelin's breath whistled short as she saw that the floor was as smooth and as slick as if it had been polished. She clenched her teeth to stop them chattering as the vile sludge oozed ever closer. For a second, a second, she thought she saw her Grandfather's wicked face in it, features distended and warped by the softening property of his new flesh but still leering at her with profane desire as he reached out a wave of blackened muscle to claim back his rightful property.

"Klu'gath'nath spare me! Have mercy!" Jeremiah cried out, apparently seeing something else in the rippling surface of the ooze. Then Thorian found his feet and they lurched as a single entity down the corridor, Jeremiah gabbling prayers for protection and deliverance as they went. He seemed the the only one who had breath to as the tunnel twisted back on itself, the ooze splashing up the wall as it rounded the corridor after them.

"I always knew you hated me father but didn't know you'd go this far," Ulrich gasped as they fled, elbows scrapping on the walls, slipping and sliding, bumping and bruising, the hissing, stinking mass at their heels all the time, scouring the floor smooth with its acid touch.

Finally, finally, as the tunnel swung to the left again, they started making space between them and the horror squirming along behind them, the black mass falling behind. As they burst out into the cave beyond the noise of its hissing finally receded back into the darkness before them and they stumbled to a halt, fighting to drag breath into their lungs. Even Thorian was shaking with the chill that affected them all.

"That was a meanie," he said, "That was the meaniest meanie ever!"

"Ugh, did anyone else think that they saw," Ulrich sniffed and straightened, "Saw someone who didn't treat them very well?"

"More like a monster who treated everyone as a play thing and a snack," Kaelin shuddered one more time and pulled herself up, "I think it might have been something about that thing. It was throwing our greatest fears at us, trying to make us panic, maybe make us fight each other to get away. If we'd lost it completely, if we'd fought each other, thrown each other under the wheels to get away, it could have had us all."

"A truly unpleasant possibility, my dear Kaelin, and I dare say you are right," Jeremiah tugged his robes back into position, "But thankfully it under estimated our friendship and loyalty for one another. Indeed we can count this as a grand victory over the forces that seek to divide us as drive us apart. As long as we stand together, there is nothing in these caverns that we need fear!"

"What ever you say old bean," Ulrich raised his eyebrows but found himself smiling at the same time. It was just such a beautiful day, perfect weather for the party in the garden. You almost had to wonder if the gods had blessed this day just for him.

"Can anyone else smell that?" Kaelin asked, wrinkling her nose most fetchingly. She really was quite adorable when she did that. When that little tip tilted nose wrinkled like that he just wanted to boop it gently and see if she would smile.

"Nothing more than fleshly mown grass my dear," he smiled, "The gardeners were hard at work this morning to make the gardens the best that they can be for the party."

The other three stared at him and Kaelin was so beautiful when she frowned.

"Er is his eyes supposed to be like that?" Thorian asked quietly.

"Somehow I really don't think so," Jeremiah admitted with a small smile, "I wonder what on Hestia could have brought this on."

"I'll give you three guesses," Kaelin turned and looked at the contents of the cavern.

"I have to admit that I've never been that good at... Hat come back here!" Jeremiah snapped as Hat lifted off his miter and went looping off through the cavern, his glowing trail lost amidst the slowly pulsing shine that fall from what was growing there.

"Well they're cool," Thorian nodded his head. Hat buzzed back, wings loaded with the glittering particles that were tumbling from the gills on the underside of the mushrooms huge caps. The giant, undead Moth rocked and shivered in the air, legs flapping in ungainly twitches and jerks.

"Hat, come here!" Jeremiah jabbed a finger at the point of his miter. Hat landed on top of one of the giant mushrooms that glowed a faint, glittering lime green and bounced, before waving his front legs at Jeremiah. If it was possible he had the biggest, buggiest grin on his face ever.

"Yes Admiral," Ulrich waved back, "The estate was in some of a state when I inherited it. My father, though he possessed many admirable traits such as appreciation for object de art, did not seem to believe in spending money on improvements to the grounds. I hope that, with the appropriate care, I will be able to improve the view of the landscape to some degree."

"Er, what is he talking about?" Thorian scratched his ear.

"It seems that our dear friend has some ambitions to inherit a large trait of land," Jeremiah explained, "And the delightful mushrooms in this place seem to have convinced his brain that his dreams have become reality."

"So you don't think that they would be good for eating?" Thorian asked, looking at a cluster of small yellowish ones.

"No, no definitely not," Jeremiah advised, "If just breathing in the spores are enough to send our friend off to happy land then I dread to think what eating them could do. Though if we experimented a little and did some discovering, then perhaps, just perhaps, we could discover something that would smooth our way to..." Jeremiah trailed off, a look of raw hunger passing across his features and it wasn't hunger for food.  Kaelin swallow through a suddenly dry throat. She'd seen that look far too many times. She'd seen it on her grandfather's face and her father hadn't been much better. Something moved in the shadows behind her and she span, fist striking out, not with a round house punch but a straight blow from the shoulder... that smashed through the pulpy stem of a mushroom and cracked her knuckles on the wall of the cavern. She yelled and cradled her bleeding knuckles to her chest, the pain driving the spores effects from her head.

"I would be careful with the roses, Kaelin," Ulrich advised, "Some of them can become a little bit frisky. I'm afraid a great Uncle used to be into experimental breeding and was trying to create a strain that would have self defense capabilities, for protection against aphids and that sort of thing. I believe that one of the gardeners actually quit after he lost his ring finger to one of them, though Aunt Em always seemed to get on with them quite well. Still Aunt Em once stood up in front of a rampaging Minotaur and made it ashamed of its behavior. I believe it guarded the main gate of her estate for many years after that, not that her husband always appreciated the jokes that went round after that, particularly as the youngest of my cousins was known for being bull headed."

"I can imagine," Kaelin forced her voice to be level, "Would you mind showing us your lovely estate? I'm sure I'll be delighted to see all the improvements you mean to make."

"Absolutely," Ulrich took her uninjured hand and tucked it though his arm, "This way. I'm sure you'll love the garden party, I've been planning this affair for months. If nothing else it is a way to make my half brother's absolutely green. Oh which, reminds me, I would love it if you could meet my little sister Priscilla. I know the name is an absolute monster but I think you'd get on like... like... well, iron and a lode stone. The rest of us will probably have to run and hide."

Thorian frowned, mouth flapping open. Kaelin waved at him with her injured hand and he thankfully got the idea that she meant he was supposed to lead the way through the swaying mushrooms. Hat tottered to the edge of the mushroom cap and fell off, bouncing with what suspiciously sounded like a squeak on to the one below, where upon he rolled down the next three and landed on the floor, sending a fountain of spores up into the air, where they fell in a sparkling curtain of rainbows that rippled and billowed across their path. The scent of vanilla filled their nostrils followed by the scent of summer strawberries.

Kaelin suppressed a sneeze as Ulrich prattled on about the people at the garden party that didn't exist, Jeremiah stumping along behind them. She managed to smile to please Ulrich and keep him moving but the edges of a headache ran clawed fingers through her hair, grinning with a beak full of teeth that were not made to reassure.

It turned out to be a good thing that Thorian was leading them as he pushed between two giant mushrooms that were a very interesting blue color with yellow dots, snapping one of them off in the process, causing the centipede that was grazing in the mushroom meadow beyond lifted its head, clicking a horror show mouth in his direction.

"Whoopee!" Thorian grinned and changed. The centipede reared back, mouth gaping wide, fangs spread wide to embrace its prey. Thorian leapt and his blade crashed down on the centipede's head, splitting it like a log from mandibles to the third body segment in one go. Its antennae went on flicking for a few moments and then fell still. Thorian kicked it off his blade.

"How's that?" he cried turning to the others.

Ulrich politely applauded as Thorian stretched up to tree top level and then tied himself into a very complicated pretzel for the entertainment of the guests. Turning he passed a polite comment to the Dowager Duchess of Esongard about where he found such entertainers these days.

"This is going to take for ever," Kaelin rubbed her eyes. That headache was beginning to push its talons into the back of her skull, its bony chin digging into her shoulder, "Jeremiah do you think that you could see about helping me get him out of here?"

Silence was the only replied.

"Jeremiah?" she turned, dreading what she was going to find. It wasn't quite as bad as she expected, not quite. Jeremiah was still there, which was the part that was better than she expected but he was grinning, a very fixed and horrible grin that was spreading across his face like a slow red tide.

"Uh oh!" Kaelin said and ducked on instinct.

Jeremiah drew himself up and thrust his hands forward.

"All bow to the might of Klu'gath'nath!" Jeremiah bellowed, spit flying from his lips, "All hail to the mightiest of the Heavenly host! The unbeatable! The unconquerable! The glory of the Heavens! The Celestial Triumphant! Give homage to Klu'gath'nath and beg that he spares you, you worthless fools!"  The froth was red tinged now, Jeremiah's gums bleeding with the force of that reality bending name.

The headache stabbed through Kaelin's skull and her vision doubled. She was on her knees and couldn't remember how she got there.

"Bow! Bow before the power of Klu'gath'nath and he may spare your miserable existence!" Jeremiah's pupils were blown wide open, dark and rippling power gathering around his hands, "Behold his glory and tremble!"

The power arched and slammed into the ground, the skeleton's erupting a second later, bones creaking and cracking with the power that was being forced into them.

"Thus shall we win glory!" Jeremiah continued ranting, "Thus shall we serve Klu'gath'nath! Only in our service to him to we have purpose! Only in our submission to his every will and decree do we have a right to exist! None are worthy! None are deserving of life unless it is to serve him with every heart and will and sinew! Wrenched and damned are those who refuse his decrees!"

Ulrich frowned when the cup of tea he raised to his lips was revealed to be empty. He frowned as he peered down. He could have sworn that the cup should have been half full. The cup wasn't there. He looked up to ask the Dowager Duchess to excuse him and she wasn't there either, instead a four foot high bright indigo mushroom with pink gills stood in her place. Ulrich shook his head, wondering how he'd suddenly been transported to this hole under the ground.

"Beg Klu'gath'nath for his forgiveness for your worthless existence!" Jeremiah ranted, "Beg that he may find some use for you so that you are not cast into the fire pit were he flings his rubbish!"

That name punched through the haze in Ulrich's head alright, that was a powerful counter to what ever spell had been caste on him, not that it seemed to be helping its utterer any. Jeremiah was swaying on the spot, dribbling at the edges as behind him seven skeletons gathered armloads of the brightest, most incandescent mushrooms that Ulrich had ever seen. Ulrich swallowed back a strange rising sensation in his stomach. All of a sudden he really didn't feel well. His stomach felt as if it was full of... rainbows, yes definitely rainbows. It really wasn't comfortable.

"Give eternal glory to Klu'gath'nath! Give him homage for your freedom! Known that without him you would be a food for the predators form the deeps! You would be nothing but food for those that slime and crawl in the depths, your memories would be as fodder for their appetite and hunger! Bow before your savior Klu'gath'nath!"

"Will someone stop him saying that name?" Thorian groaned. His face could not go green to show his distress, instead it had gone an awful shade of grey. Kaelin groaned in agreement where she knelt on the floor, arms wrapped over her head, the headache joyfully drilling into her brain. If the horrid thing would just let go of her nerves for a moment she might be able to think of a way to make Jeremiah shut up. She shuddered, just thinking that was enough to make the headache dig its claws in a little deeper.

Ulrich marched across to the frothing, bellowing priest and snatching his miter from his head, he stuffed it into Jeremiah's mouth. Not that the priest showed any signs of noticing, continuing to rant and rave at his imaginary captive audience but now the words where blessedly muffled by the cloth shoved between his teeth and that mind warping name was no longer audible.

Kaelin sighed as the headache released the pressure on her skull just slightly. Any relief was better than no relief at all.

"Oh that's better," Thorian rubbed his ears, restoring some of their green colour, "I don't know who's he's talking about but I wish he would stop it, it gives me the goosies."

"Yeah," Kaelin agreed as she stood, "Now can we get out of here? I have the burger all of a headache and I've have quite enough of breathing rainbows."

"Oh," Ulrich's face twisted, "Please don't mention rainbows."

"Have to admit that there doesn't seem to be any more friends round here so I'm happy to go," Thorian nodded and turned towards the exist to the right of where they had come in, although in this cavern it was difficult to tell. "You coming?" he asked as Kaelin didn't immediately follow.

"How are we going to move him?" she asked, gesturing to where Jeremiah stood, his miter gradually becoming some what soggy as he dribbled through it.

"Thorian old boy, help me with this would you?" Ulrich walked up behind Jeremiah and laid his hands on the priest's shoulders. Jeremiah didn't resist, nor seem to really notice, his pupils were that wide open his eyes appeared to be completely black.

"Grab his shoulders," Ulrich instructed as Thorian walked over and once the orc crossbreed had done so Ulrich hooked Jeremiah's feet out from under him. "Steady as he goes," Ulrich smiled as they lower Jeremiah over on to his side, "Now then."

With that Ulrich started rolling Jeremiah over the floor towards the tunnel entrance, whistling as he went, while Jeremiah bumped and bounced, not unlike a rather large butter barrel. Thorian marched along beside them, singing a rollicking song about moving ale casks and the drinking that followed. The orc crossbreeds eyes were beginning to dilate but he seemed to have merely become as high as kite. With a sigh of relief Kaelin stumbled after them, little lights flickering at the edge of her vision. Hat crawled along at the back of the group, wings buzzing ineffectively at the ground, his sense of direction not entirely steady.

Jeremiah rolled and bowled along the tunnel until, with a final shove from Ulrich he bounced down into the next cavern, a small rather plain affair of bare brown stone. Jeremiah lay there upon his back for several minutes as Thorian bounced around the cave, body literally buzzing with excess energy, then quite suddenly Jeremiah sat up, mumbled for a moment and then spat his miter out.

"Just who was it that thought it was a brilliant idea to shove that in my mouth?" he demanded, "If you have stained the fabric then I am going to be very upset!"

"Who thought it was a brilliant idea to go on a full on radical preacher and start denouncing such little things like, oh I don't know, try breathing without your God's permission?" Ulrich folded his arms and lent back against the wall of the cavern wall.

"Not to mention using a name, word, whatever it was, that nearly makes everyone's ears bleed," Kaelin groused, massaging her skull and then gasped with relief as her headache suddenly went pop and vanished, giving her an almost light headed feeling and the relief in her neck! She gingerly moved her head around to make sure that the little beast wasn't going to latch on to her again.

"My dear Kaelin," Jeremiah smiled, "You should know that there is no such word in existence. Words are only methods of communication."

"Says the man who's lips are bleeding right now," Ulrich grinned and then staggered, hands clutching his head.

"Hey up, you alright?" Thorian asked, his bouncing slowly coming to a stop.

"Agh, no, not really!" Ulrich groaned, "Feels as if my brain is being rung out through my ears. Is that even physically possible?"

"I guess that karma is telling you that ruining someones hat is a..." Jeremiah climbed to his feet and stopped, a pained whimper escaping him after a moment. It wasn't just his brain being rug out, it was his whole body and Jeremiah had a lot of body to be rung. He panted harshly and sweat broke out over his forehead, trickling down his face.

"That and what are you going to do about your little friends?" Kaelin asked, jabbing a thumb back down the tunnel they had just escaped from.

An inarticulate noise escaped Jeremiah's throat.

"I said, what about your friends?" Kaelin asked again.

Jeremiah's replied wasn't made up of words, more little proto words that existed before words had evolved.

"Gargh.... Nargh... Hargh," he managed to get out and then some how managed to turn and look back up the tunnel.

Four skeletons trooped along, baring armloads of mushrooms, their faint glow lighting up the bones that held them. The drunken Hat only just managed to scuttle out of the way of their clicking feet. Behind them three skeletons staggered under the weight of a mushroom taller than they were. As the party watched the cap began tilting back and forth.

"Parght... hittttt.... clown," Jeremiah instructed, still sweating cobs. The mushroom swayed and swayed again, osculating back and forth across the tunnel, dragging the skeletons that were trying to hold it up in its wake.

"I said, put it down," Jeremiah tried again... too late.

The mushroom swayed, the mushroom quivered, the mushroom fell. The noise could only be described as sploosh!

Mushroom splashed across the floor, the walls, even the ceiling, drenching the three luckless skeletons and splattering their companions.

Kaelin snorted, Ulrich suppressed a snigger and Thorian out right laughed. With a growl of annoyance Jeremiah snapped his fingers and the three skeletons crumbled into dust, or rather gloop. He swung his pack off his back and dug through it to find a sack. Swinging the patch back on to his back, he advanced on the skeletons and held the sack open. Without a word the skeletons deposited their burdens into the sack. Jeremiah snapped his fingers once more and they crumbled into dust. He yanked the drawstring closed and turned to his still smiling companions. Even Kaelin wasn't as sulky as she usually looked.

"And what, may I ask, is so funny?" Jeremiah demanded.

"Nothing, Jerry, nothing at all," Ulrich said absolutely straight faced.

Tuesday 16 April 2024

Draconic Shennanigans - Episode 15

Chapter Fifteen: The Cabin in the Woods 

 Smiling Jeremiah stepped down from the cart and approached the stricken Goblin Leader, who lay still twitching and shivering in the dust of the road. Spreading his hands, Jeremiah began to chant, power ebbing and flowing between his palms. Slowly the Goblin Leader's tremors ceased and he stood up, carefully feeling around the site of the wound, which was now nothing more than a ruckled white patch on his shoulder.

 Jeremiah peered closely at him as the goblin's eyes stretched wide. There appeared to be absolutely nothing wrong with the goblin at all but deep in its dark eyes something stirred like the flick of a fin in dark water.

"Now you are blessed by the Goddess and are bound to her service," Jeremiah intoned.

"Oh shut up," Kaelin muttered, stroking Haggis on reflex.

"Give thanks to She-of-the-Thunder-Voice," Jeremiah proclaimed, "Praise the Goddess-of-the-Thunder-Voice!" He couldn't help but grin as the goblins bobbed up and down to Kaelin, squeaking to her in their rusty sounding voices. Gobliniods had been stupid ever since they existed. They did have their own legends about this, claiming that the God of the Pointy Ears (elves to everyone else) had permanently injured their God, destroying his ability to create anything, thus his children couldn't create, only take. Even orc-crossbreeds tended that way, even though, if they put what minds they had to it, they could be creative. Orc-crossbreeds were also usually healthier than their full orc cousins, hence why they had green skin instead of the grey mess their full orc cousins had.

 Granted... Jeremiah peered closer at the goblins as they chorused their thanks to Kaelin. They were more of a greenish-grey than a full on grey so maybe their belief in this Goddess-of-the-Thunder-Voice was founded in some sort of truth, which would mean...

Jeremiah grinned until it felt as if his face would crack.

It meant that Kaelin was suffering from a case of mistaken identity! It was all Jeremiah could do to not roar with laughter and let the silly little pip squeaks know that they had the wrong person.

"All hail to the Goddess-of-the-Thunder-Voice!" he bellowed, beaming like a light house.

"I said shut up!" Kaelin snapped, "And as for you lot - push off!"

The goblins hesitated, possibly unsure if Kaelin was displeased with their worship or with they themselves.

"That's right," Jeremiah grinned, "Obey the bidding of the Goddess-of-the-Thunder-Voice! Go forth and spread the good word of her name!"

"Yes, yes! We hear, we do!" the goblins chorused and scattered into the under brush. Kaelin gave Jeremiah a long flat look.

"Seriously?" she asked flatly.

"Just spreading the good word of your existence," Jeremiah smiled oily at her.

"What good word?" Kaelin snapped, "I'm no Goddess and making them think so is just plain..." She trailed off as the penny dropped, "Oh that is just so you, isn't it just?" Jeremiah said nothing at all, just smiled and bowed.

Ulrich sighed and rolled his eyes as he watched them, before turning and lifting Thorian. Or at least, he tried to lift Thorian. That had been his intention but instead he found himself discovering why Thorian had wound up on the King's Special simply for falling on someone.

Kaelin and Jeremiah turned round at the muffled scream of "Get him off of me!"

Jeremiah took one look at Ulrich's legs kicking from under Thorian's bulk and doubled over in helpless laughter, slapping his legs as the tears ran down his face. Kaelin looked, considered and turned to the woodsman.

"Would you mind being an dear and helping us get him up?" she tried smiling appealingly. Jeremiah took one look at what Kaelin thought was a winning smile and doubled up again. Kaelin and beseeching just did not go together. However, the woodsman smiled under his shaggy beard and knuckled his forehead.

"For you little lady, I'll gladly help," he said, "If you'll just hold Winky here."

"Um, that might not be..." Kaelin started to protest and found herself handed the reigns anyway. Then she had the weirdest experience she'd ever had with a horse. Instead of immediately screaming in terror and trying to bolt, the dappled grey horse turned his head and gave her a very strong sniff as he looked at her out of one eye. Kaelin found herself gazing into an eye the color of a hand polished horse chestnut and was lost in its utter depths. Some how she found herself believing that this horse saw her and knew exactly what she was and was somehow not afraid. He sniffed her again and tried to nuzzle at her. Without thought, she put her hand up to his nose and he didn't balk at her touch, his hot breath warming her palm.

"Just what are you?" Kaelin whispered. Winky turned his head slightly so he looked at the woodsman and then looked back at her. Kaelin frowned, understanding that it was all the answer she was going to get but also sure that she had missed the message she was supposed to receive.

"Up you come," the woodsman said, taking hold of Thorian's shoulders and lifting him half way up so Ulrich could roll and scramble out from under the orc crossbreeds dead weight.

"Thank... Thank you," Ulrich panted as he scrambled to his feet and stood panting, "I was beginning to think that I was going to die under there. I now know what a fly feels when you squat it."

"That maybe, Sir," the woodsman noted, "But if you don't help me get this one into the back of the cart, he isn't going any where. Can't do it by myself, see?"

"Of course, of course," Ulrich tugged his clothes straight and stepped forward to take one side of Thorian, "Happy to oblige." By main strength and more than a little grunting, they managed to shift Thorian up and into the cart bed, wedging him in among the boxes of supplies, both their own and the woodsman's.

"Thank you, little Lady," the woodsman nodded as he took back the reigns.

"I'm no Lady," she muttered as she climbed back into the cart but he didn't seem to hear her.

"I say friend," Ulrich asked as the woodsman shook the reigns and clicked his teeth to set the cart rolling again, "I'm afraid I didn't quite catch your name back there. Seems very churlish of me, particularly as I rather owe you my life. Would you mind telling us what it is?"

The woodsman was silent for a while and Kaelin almost thought he wasn't going to answer.

"Black Randle," the woodsman spoke at last, "Nearly didn't remember it myself. A man doesn't have much need for a name up in the mountains. Now how about you read some more of that book out to us, Sir. Haven't heard a really good reading in years and I'd forgotten how much I enjoyed it."

"So you used to live closer to society then," Ulrich noted as he fished out the book and flicked though the pages to find his place.

"Used to go to the preacher's place up the mountain away," Black Randle admitted, "That was when it was the old guy but he's been gone for many a year and the youngster who took his place has a poisoned religion. I weren't going to hang about to be black marked and hunted out. I know a witch hunter when I see it and I don't believe in staying where you are just going to get yourself in trouble with folks."

"Are you not afraid of eternal damnation?" Jeremiah asked with a smile.

"No more than you are," Black Randle replied shortly, "Read on, Sir. If nothing else I'd like to know about the folks I'm likely to have as neighbors for a while."

"Okay," Ulrich agreed, clearing his throat, "Here's something of interest. 'The reason for the Ash society being so heavily matriarchal is buried not only within the demands of the Underworld environment but also in the history of deep time. Though many younger races have forgotten the root cause of their instinctive distrust of all elves, the elves themselves have not forgotten that they once had a higher calling than their shorter lived neighbors. It appears, from the collection of legends and dare it be said, folk tales that have circulated among the elves since time out of mind that there was once an even older species upon Hestia. Known simply as the Begetters, the elves speak of these beings having a hand in the creation of all races as the craftsmen of the Gods and it seems from the oldest legends that the Begetters shared the world for a very long time with the races they had created, ordering and guiding them. In this it seems that the Begetters favored the elves above all others for their greater life spans and higher intelligence, choosing from among their number ones who would honored to join the ranks of the Begetters and share in their great work. However, the Begetters where careful tenders to the younger races, and always respected that it was only through the abilities of woman folk that new life was brought into the world. Therefore, woman were never chosen to join the ranks of the Begetters, not for lack of ability but because they had the equal responsibility of ensuring that their race would continue on through time. Also, once an elf was chosen to join the Begetters their abilities, strength and knowledge would no longer be available to the clan, gone as it had done to serve a higher purpose. Therefore it was practical that women, as they could not be called to this higher purpose, should hold the highest position within the clans, ensuring that their knowledge, strength and abilities would not be lost in the future when the Begetters called for their rightful due in the future.

What criteria the Begetters used in their selection process is now unknown but it seems that once again they husbanded their charges carefully, taking not the strongest or most intelligent but those just below them, leaving the best to sire the next generation, thus improving the breed. This still holds true in Ash Elf society today, with the strongest, most intelligent males fairly secure in their positions within the clan once they have gained the patronage of a strong female, while those directly below them are locked in a constant, often deadly struggle to prove their worth.' "

"It seems that these Ash Elves have a rather interesting outlook on the world," Jeremiah grinned.

"Interesting is not the word for it," Ulrich shook his head, "They are cruel in the extreme from the details given here about how they 'prove their worth'. As I said earlier, death is considered a perfectly acceptable result of the training process, for males at least. For the females, well they don't kill each other but they can fall from grace hard and fast and being the bottom of the heap is not a good place to be in Ash Elf society. They can inflict pain just as readily as they inflict death. I'm talking cursed objects, pain rituals and public humiliation. An Ash Elf woman might not wind up dead but she can wind up seriously scarred or, shall we say, changed."

"Oh tell me more," Jeremiah crooned.

"They have a very nasty transformation magic available to them," Ulrich admitted, "Apparently females that are subjected to that have no way of coming back up the ranks, they are permanently stuck at the bottom of the heap and it seems to sterilize them as well, so they don't even have that to their name to gain some form of respect."

"How often do the women folk take on risky missions?" Kaelin asked.

"According to this, not often," Ulrich tapped the book.

"So meeting that one in the Dead Swamp is another sign of how much trouble their society is in," Kaelin noted.

"From what I'm learning here, you are right on the money," Ulrich agreed, "A high ranking Ash Elf women would not have to come up to the surface and a lower ranked on would not have been allowed, in case she gets the idea of using the surface as a safe house to start another clan to rival the matriarchs of her family."

"So Governor Risgath was not fooling around when he said that something has seriously messed things up down there for them to be coming up to the surface like this," Kaelin observed and then pocked Thorian with her foot. He snorted and rolled over, snoring more quietly although he did not stop all together.

"Something must have," Ulrich agreed, "You all most have to feel sorry for them. They must be desperate to survive to be trying a move like this but considering their attitude to every other living race on this planet we'd be damn fools to let them up so we have to beat them back and every time we win they come that little bit closer to extinction."

"Some how, knowing how they would view as nothing more than an interesting toy, I cannot bring myself to regret that," Jeremiah smiled.

"It's the same with the wolves," Kaelin admitted, "Men keep pushing into their land but when the wolves fight back, it is the wolves that men brand as evil and hunt down. They never look at themselves in the mirror and realize that it was the men who started this war."

"That is a fascinating observation, my dear Kaelin, but I fail to see how it connects to the problem we have here," Jeremiah admitted.

"The Ash Elves are the men and the wolves are every other races," Kaelin explained, "Only we know what is at stake and can band together to win this fight, so we might have a better chance than the wolves of the woods have."

 "They don't seem to see us as evil," Ulrich observed, tapping the book, "More like entertaining pets and beasts of burden who don't know that they belong to a strong and controlling master. They almost seem to pity us for our weak minded insistence that they are the cruel ones. The way they see it, we are the ones in error for having turned our backs of the Begetters."

"I have to say that it is rather interesting," Jeremiah said, "It sounds rather as if these Ash Elves are recalling a distorted version of the war in heaven, although they seem to be casting the wrong side as the wronged side."

"I'm not sure," Ulrich admitted, "Who ever these Begetters are they seem to be something incredibly old, from what I'm reading here, the Ash Elves believe that the Begetters had a hand in even the beginnings of the draconic races but at the seem time they appear to be fallible so not divine. Indeed there are some hints that it was the dragons that initiated the lesser races rising up against the Begetters. From what it is saying here the Ash Elves believe themselves to be the only true Elves as the other elvish races were either duped or corrupted into joining in with the rebellion against the Begetters."

"Hence why they were driven out even from other elves," Jeremiah nodded, "They are to other elves what elves are to the rest of us."

"Arrogant jerks," Kaelin muttered.

"Why Kaelin my dear," Jeremiah beamed, "I do believe you just actually agreed with me on something."

"Don't get used to it," Kaelin rebuffed him.

"Seems they chose it," Ulrich corrected, "They chose to leave their kin and the surface, rather than remind in a world corrupted by the dragon's ingratitude."

"Ingratitude for what?" Black Randle asked, taking the black root stick out of his mouth for a moment.

"Ingratitude for being created," Ulrich said, "As I said, this is saying that the Begetters had a hand in the creation of the dragons and their kin, which, when you think about it, makes a perfect kind of sense. If dragons who are polymorphed can have children with the race they are pretending to be, it would suggest a certain common...." he trailed off, trying to find the word he meant.

"Base material?" Jeremiah suggested.

"Common clay," Black Randle said, "That's what the old preacher used to say. He said that we all come from the dust and we'll go back to the dust in the end and that everything that thinks bleeds red, even orcs, so we shouldn't go picking fights with those that were created from the same place."

"An interesting view point," Jeremiah noted, "But I doubt it made him popular."

"Oh he weren't saying that we shouldn't defend what was ours from those that would just take," Black Randle corrected, "He was just saying that if they should come asking to trade then we should give them that chance. He knew that in the mountains a man has to make his own law, he was just against picking fights we don't need to. Come as a friend or don't come at all. That was the way he worded it. Come as a friend or don't come at all." Having said his piece Black Randle pushed his piece of black root back between his lips and chewed on it.

As the sun sank towards the horizon they crested a rise and saw the cart track turn up the foot hills towards the logging camp. Black Randle however did not turn the cart, letting the horse step off the gravel road on to a rutted by way, where the weeds grew up between the cart wheel to brush the underside of the cart. Jeremiah started wincing as the cart jolted and lurched over the humps and hollows of the way but he wisely kept his mouth shut, remembering Black Randle's suggestion the day before that he get out and walk if he didn't like the ride. Even Ulrich put the book away as the trees started reaching down to pat him on the head. Though that was just because their branches grew that much lower to the ground, Ulrich looked at a few of them, unsure whether they really were moving to muss his hair deliberately. He frowned even more when Thorian woke, sat up with a yawn and waved a friendly greeting to someone he couldn't see among the trees.

At the end of the thread of the track Black Randle lead them in to a clearing that stretched a little way between the log cabin and the stout barn, a small out house away from the other buildings. Kaelin was unable to see any more than that because a small but fuzzy body bumbled into her face and the next second she yelped as a sharp and fiery pain blossomed at the end of her nose. Hand flying up to it, her fingers discovered a thick bodied bee, with a bright orange butt struggling to extract its sting from her skin. Before she could yank it away, a hand yanked hers away from it.

"Just hold still!" Black Randle commanded as Kaelin's eyes watered, "If yah hurt her she'll call all the others to her and they'll not be friendly."

"Best do as her says, my dear," Jeremiah observed as he clambered out of the cart, "Death by a thousand stings would be a pour way to go out."

"By puppose do tink dis is dunny," Kaelin muttered as the bee finally unscrewed her stinger and flew away.

"He might actually have a point, I'm sorry to say," Ulrich was looking round the clearing, "I did not peg you, sir, for a bee keeper."

The hives stood in a row down both sides of the cabin and there were herb plants and flowering bushes planted around the edge of the clearing, swarming with bees of every hue and size, from tiny wood bees that slipped into little holes in the walls of the cabin itself to the huge bumbles that buzzed and swarmed in and out of not only a few of the special shaped hives butt also not one, but two honey trees that stood in the edge of the forest.

"There's a lot yay don't know about me," Black Randle observed, helping Kaelin down and leading her inside to tend to her wounded nose. Ulrich paused and actually looked at the cabin. Its walls were well made, tightly cinch with moss and plumb-line straight, the windows glazed and clear, roof well made, chimney of river rock neatly pointed. The barn was stoat and strong, again cinch with moss and the doors straight. The gardens were fenced and neat, the hives clean. Looking again at their host, Ulrich realized that though his beard with thick and curly black, it was brushed and clean, his hair neatly trimmed, his clothes repaired with the care that made the mends nearly invisible, the buttons all sewn tightly on.

As he started lifting supplies from the back of the cart Black Randle noticed Ulrich looking and raised an eyebrow. No words seemed necessary so instead Ulrich inclined his head and moved to help lift down one of the boxes.

"It will be getting dark soon," Black Randle peered up through the branches, "And unless you folks can see in the dark, you'll be taking a stupid risk going to look in on the new neighbors tonight. Not much keen on visitors but you can stay here tonight. I've a bed and a trundle bed, if you don't mind doubling up, won't be the first time I've slept in the barn."

"That would be might kind of you," Thorian grinned from where he was holding on to Winky's reigns, stroking the horse with his free hand. The horse accepted Thorian's petting with stoic calmness.

"Though if yer could give a hand with bringing in the supplies that would be a help," Black Randle suggested.

"I um..." Thorian's ears drooped.

"I'm afraid our friend is some what clumsy," Jeremiah said and though his words were kind his tone was some how not, "He means well but handling such delicate things these would probably lead to some interesting explosions, if not the complete destruction of your house, my good sir." Jeremiah probed carefully at the glass globes he'd uncovered in one of the boxes the governor had given them. Lifting one he shook it carefully, watching the purplish smoke within swirl and churn. He put it back and replaced the wooden, lid noticing the words 'for bugs' stenciled on it.

"Won't be a problem with my supplies, cloth and store sugar doesn't much care about being bashed about," Black Randle said with a shrugged, "Salt's much the same. In fact, think the only other box in there that's mine is the powder box and I can handle that one. Oh that and the new metal work, but you'd care more about it if you drop the axe on yar foot."

"You didn't buy any flour," Ulrich asked in surprise.

"Nah, got me my stand of corn," Black Randle shock his head as he unlocked the door and elbowed it open, "Once that is dried I'll be able to grind it. Makes a heavier bread than that wheat stuff but you need something heavy to line yah stomach when you have the heavy lifting to do."

"You seem remarkably self sufficient," Ulrich noted as he lifted a box named 'lights-regular'.

"Never much got along with people," Black Randle admitted, "So I have to be. There's not much the forest doesn't provide for me. Had a good winter last year, fair hunting and the sow I bought last spring managed to have a litter of piglets that she mostly raised. I'll be working hard soon to fill the larder from the garden soon but the woods are good. You give nature her space to breath and she'll let you breath as well."

Hard work was only part of the description. Though Black Randle turned out to be a generous host, pulling out of various little cupboards all sorts of little treasures tucked away for a rainy day, he did not expect to wait on his guests hand and foot. By the time the dinner was on the table Jeremiah had had the disagreeable experience of learning to par sweet potatoes, Kaelin had found herself mixing bread dough, Thorian was fetching water from the well and Ulrich was using his skill as a hunts man to fillet down smoked venison. Black Randle backed the cart into the barn, unhitched Winky and rubbed the horse down before setting to making a decent stew, brewing a batch of tea that could paint the throat of its drinkers black and find various sweet treasures he'd squirreled away over the years. Anyone who had still hands found themselves being given a job, from helping to make the food to tidying away the stores that Black Randle had bought during his enforced stay in Nether Wallop.

Dinner was set on a table for hungrier guests than they had expected to be and a busy silence reigned as the knife and fork symphony played.

"That was excellent, my good sir," Jeremiah beamed as he pushed back from the table.

"We're not finished yet," Black Randle observed as he started stacking the wooden plates and bowls.

"My dear sir," Jeremiah smiled, "As much as I admire your generosity, I doubt I could eat another mouthful."

"Not what I meant," Black Randle replied.

"I am sorry but I fail to understand," Jeremiah frowned.

Kaelin and Ulrich looked at each other.

"I'll dry," Kaelin stated.

"I guess that leaves me with the washing," Ulrich sighed, "You Thorian?"

"I er...." Thorian looked around, more than a little lost then he saw that Black Randle was piling the plates up in the big sink, made out of a hollowed log, "Ah! I'll fetch water."

"Oh," Jeremiah said and then grinned, "Seems like every job is already taken..."

"Wood for the fire," Black Randle stated as he rolled out the trundle bed and started pulling out sheets and blankets, "As in we need you to fetch more."

"I'm beginning to see why you don't get along with people," Jeremiah huffed as he pulled himself to his feet.

"Idle hands are a devil's workshop," Black Randle replied as he started laying the bed.

After Black Randle had bidden them good night and had taken the lamp over to the barn, they went to turn in, Jeremiah claiming a spot on the bed before anyone else could speak.

"I'll take first watch," Kaelin stated.

"Do you really think that is necessary?" Jeremiah asked sleepily.

"Yes," she said flatly, "Black Randle may not be bothered about these Ash Elves but I think that we are behind enemy lines now and I don't like surprises."

"Could it be that you are more worried about you adoring followers, my dear?" Jeremiah pulled the covers up to his chin.

"More like I don't want to share a bed with you," Kaelin stated bluntly, having noted that Ulrich and Thorian had both chosen the trundle bed without a sound.

"Always later," Jeremiah grinned.

"Don't count on it," Kaelin resolutely turned her back on him, pulling a chair up to the light hole in the shutter. She relaxed as she heard Jeremiah's throaty snore start up. After a while she started to nod but Kaelin had long ago mastered the art of dozing with her ears wide open. As such she was instantly alert the moment she heard the snuffling.

Something very large and black was in the yard between the house and the barn. Eye to the light hole in the shutter Kaelin frowned as she tried to make out the details but all she really had was an impression of mass and shagginess and a huge bunt head the swung from side to side, huffing as it did so.

In the barn Winky whinnied. Kaelin winced, knowing that the horse had just signed its death warrant and then mentally slapped herself. Whatever was out there would have smelt the horse ages ago. The thing swung towards the barn and let out a rumbling snort. Winky whinnied again and Kaelin realized that it was not a frightened sound but the sound of a questioning greeting. Winky was making sure he knew what it was wandering in his barn yard. The thing rumbled its snort again and the horse quietened. Kaelin strained her head at the light hole as the black mass shambled off into the undergrowth around the edge of the clearing, heedless of the branches scrapping at its shoulders.

Kaelin sat back in her chair and wondered. She glanced over at the beds. There didn't seem to be any danger so... She turned back to watching until she judged that the stars said that midnight was near.

"Wake up," she pocked Jeremiah in the small of his back.

"Nerf buffer it," he mumbled.

"You turn for the watch," Kaelin was unsympathetic, pocking him again.

"Gah smar crud,"Jeremiah rolled over and sat up, "Wait what?"

"You turn for the watch," Kaelin repeated, "So aft out of that bed."

"Why does it always seem to be my turn to watch in the early hours of the morning?" Jeremiah grouched as he rubbed his eyes.

"Would you prefer Thorian doing it?" Kaelin folded her arms, "He'd probably sit there for the rest of the night sharpening that sword of his. Did you get much sleep last night?"

"Oh alright, alright," Jeremiah stood up, "Is there anything in the coffee...." Kaelin had already disappeared.

Jeremiah looked round with a frown as he felt the bed flex against the back of his knees.

Kaelin was already pulling the blankets up around her ears.

"Hope you nick my grave as quick," Jeremiah muttered and stumbled over the cinders of the fire. A handful of wood shavings and a few small sticks had it gradually growing up again. Jeremiah settled down on a chair in front of the fireplace and brooded. His sleep hadn't even been that good before Kaelin had woken him up, full of an odd light, a sense of oppressive presence that had pressed down on him and now there was a definite chill to the air. He hunched over as he fed more sticks into the fire and started adding larger pieces. At a loss of what else to do he pulled Michael Azrael's manuscript out of his cavernous pocket. There was a certain poetry to the words that began to make them run together if you read them long enough and there was a certain memorableness to their rhythm and rhyme. Jeremiah light a candle to hold it close to the book and read on. The story wasn't half bad in a way, at least it was easy reading as the wizard build his empire of shadows and puppet strings.

Jeremiah looked up from the book. He glanced about the room trying to place what had disturbed him. Kaelin slept with her nose tucked under the covers, making barely a sound. Ulrich was snuffling in his sleep but it wasn't noisy and Thorian lay rolled on his side, for once quiet as he slept. With a shrug, Jeremiah turned his attention back to the book, surprised the see just how many pages he'd already turned. He found were he'd left off and...

He looked up again. Something was definitely off, something... A chord of discord, a note of worry, sounded in the night, thrumming inside Jeremiah's head and humming in his bones.  He put the book away and stood, trying to concentrate on the sound and suddenly it was like he was outside of the cabin, seeing it from multiply different angles all at once. The sensation made his eyes ache, his vision overly blue shaded and he was absolutely sure that whoever eyes he was looking through, they did not mean the occupiers of the cabin any good.

He flinched and his vision was back to being his own.

"Wake up!" he hissed, shaking Thorian's shoulder.

"Wait! What!" the big orc cross-breed sat up sharply, smacking Ulrich's ear and snapping him awake as well. Kaelin was already sitting up.

"What is it," she frowned.

"We have company and it is not the sort you want round for dinner," Jeremiah rooted through the boxes of supplies the Governor had given them. The globes... for bugs. Jeremiah shoved it aside. It was some sort of gas, not effective in an open space like a forest clearing. Bars... food.

"I don't see any one," Thorian rubbed his head.

"They're outside," Jeremiah snarled, shifting boxes. It had to be here, by Klu'gath-nath, it had to be here.

"Large, black and shaggy?" Kaelin yanked on her boots.

"No, lots of them," Jeremiah didn't have time to wonder at how detailed her question had been. He shifted another box and there it was. Pulling open the lid, Jeremiah lifted out one of the long tubes and smiled.

"Where are they? And how many?" Ulrich stood and drew his swords, hefting the fae given, elvish blade.

"All around the clearing and more of them than us," Jeremiah stood and turned to the door, "But we have a surprise for them. Now, as you have been reading that book so much, what do you reckon they would do if they saw a small group that they thought couldn't fight back?"

"They would want to play with them..." Ulrich trailed off, looking at the thing in Jeremiah's hand, "You sly dog." He actually smiled at the fat priest.

"I don't get it," Thorian admitted.

"We're going to surprise them," Ulrich explained, hiding his drawn swords under a blanket he pulled off the bed and draped around himself like a cloak, "Hide that big sword of yours and you'll have a lot of fun with them."

"But I would have fun with them any way," Thorian huffed.

"Trust us on this, old boy, this is going to be much more fun," Ulrich smiled, "Just cover your eyes when Jerrs fires off that thing and then we'll take them to the cleaners."

"I was going to take them to the grave," Thorian protested and then there was no more time as Jeremiah pulled the cabin door open. Stepping out in as close a huddle as they could, Thorian grumbling as they did so, the night appeared unoccupied.. for a minute. As Jeremiah stepped down off of the porch step the first crossbow bolt thudded into the dirt just by his foot. Another smacked into the post beside Kaelin's head.

Unfazed, Jeremiah stepped on, the others drawn up around him. More bolts slammed into the dirt around their feet. Kaelin hopped from one foot to the other, she couldn't help and Thorian looked round at the trees, cheeks puffing up, hand reaching....

"Not yet," Ulrich hissed, catching Thorian's wrist.

"I don't like them!" Thorian didn't bother to keep his voice down, "They are meanies!"

The laughter cackled and swirled around the clearing, like swooping avian things round the clearing, more crossbow bolts slamming into the dirt, making Kaelin hop and twitch, trying to avoid the wickedly sharp barbs while staying close to her friends. Then Jeremiah cried out, one hand clutching at his upper arm where a bolt had scored a deep and burning wound.

"Dance Monk-Key!" a mocking voice rang out from the dark.

A snarl twisted Jeremiah's lip as he turned to face the trees, then he took hold of the trigger string and yanked. With a pop something shot from the other end of the tube, traveling on a tongue of chemical light that winked out.

"Now!" hissed Ulrich, covering his eyes with his arm as he ducked his head.

"Their meanies!" Thorian was vibrating as he looked down at Ulrich.

Something exploded just below the level of the trees, so searingly bright that it left spots dancing on the vision even through closed lids. The dark vanished, the shadows fled and voices screamed out in pain and figures who had been hidden in the edge of the trees threw down their weapons, hands going to eyes suddenly streaming tears. They flinched back from the light, crying out.

"Shriek Monk-Keys!" Jeremiah laughed as the figures flapped, then something barreled through the white light, something huge, furry and growling. Something that reared on to its back legs and smashed one of the elves to the ground with a massive fore-paw.

"It's Thorian Time!" Thorian bellowed, sword crashing through another elf. Ulrich took the right flank, blades flickering in the light. Elves cried out as the gory fun they had planned for the night twisted back on them and bite with blade and claw and light.

"You dare steal from us!" one of them screeched as he saw, through his tears, Ulrich charging him, "You miserable worm! You..." The elf's head bounced under a bush and rolled down a badger hole, much to the delight of the badgers.

The huge thing smashed into a other elf. The elf cracked off a shot but the bolt logged in the things thick hide and shaggy fur as the thing's jaws closed with a very final crunch over the elf's head. The thing turned, shaking the body before it tossed it away into the bushes. It reared on to its hind legs again and roared.

"Oh my..." Jeremiah's jaw flapped open as the bear towered over the clearing. Its piecing dark eyes glared out from under heavy brow ridges and its huge claws raked through the air. It slammed down on to all fours and could have still looked Thorian full in the eye. Jeremiah squeaked and closed his eyes as it lumbered towards him. Jeremiah panted, every spell he knew running off and hiding some where in his head, then he spun on the spot as it brushed passed and crashed into the elves creeping up behind him. The elves flew like nine pins, those that weren't crunched to nothing beneath the bears immense weight. Several of them bounced off of the boughs of trees, various things going crack inside.

One, possibly luckier than the others, rolled to his feet and picked up a sword. Looking up he spotted Jeremiah and grinned. With a frenetic cry he lunged at the dumpy priest but then he threw down his sword, hands going once more to his face as the cloud of giggling embers and cinders spilled from Jeremiah's palm to enveloped him and stripped the skin off his skull. Screaming the elf spun on the spot, hands trying to beat away the things peeling him out of his skin, then Ulrich's blade ended his agony with one swift stab.

"Eight!" Ulrich yelled.

"Oneteen, twoteen," Thorian yelled, "Twenty four!"

"Wait what?" Ulrich asked, turning a puzzled frown to the big orc crossbreed and then having to duck and defend furiously as two of the elves attacked at once, their eyes still streaming in the blazing light but they ire only seeming to have increased. Ire or not they were no match as Haggis' battle cry shivered above the din of battle.

Thorian threw back his head and roared, the veins swelling on his face and neck and he wasn't the only one that bellowed. The massive bear thundered and smashed an elf into a tree so hard it cracked, the trunk toppling down into the clearing, knocking one elf into the turf like a nail into a plank. Haggis' skirling rose up and up, carrying a red rage into the hearts of two of the combatants.

Thorian was a whirling, smashing rage that now amount of cuts seemed to stop; the bear didn't seem to feel the number of crossbow bolts embedded in its shoulders, its paws smashing elves left and right, their broken forms snapping off of trunks and branches, its claws leaving as bloody a trail as Thorian's massive sword.

As the glaring ball of white light that hovered about the clearing finally started to burn itself out, the elves broke and ran, fleeing into the undergrowth, loosing members still as Thorian and the bear gave chase.

"Come on!" Thorian bellowed, "There's plenty more!" He crashed through the bushes and then tripped and fell, sprawling into the leaf litter. The three standing in the clearing stared as the white flame flared for one last brief instant and then went out.

"Do you think we should go and get him?" Ulrich asked as Kaelin let Haggis' blowstick fall from her lips.

"I do not think that will be necessary, my dear," Jeremiah smiled as the dark rushed back to reclaim the territory it had been evicted from.

"Why?" Kaelin asked and then a resounding snore echoed round the clearing.

"That's why," Jeremiah pointed, "I doubt that we could move him in his present state and as for the noise. I don't think any of us would get another moment of sleep if we have to share the cabin with that."

"Still," Kaelin stroked Haggis, "Do you think it is safe?"

"I think our unfortunate visitors will not becoming back any time tonight," Jeremiah reassured, "Now to bed." He stretched and turned to the cabin.

"I'll stay up and keep watch," Ulrich said quietly to Kaelin, "Especially if you give me a hand to tidy up a little."

"Tidy up..." Kaelin trailed off as she saw, in the dim natural light Ulrich seize a very ex-elf by the ankles and start dragging him away, "Ah, good point." After a moments thought she double checked the size of the boots. Once the easily discovered remains had been stacked up behind a couple of large lilac bushes and their effects piled up on the porch, Kaelin bid Ulrich good night and headed into the cabin to discover which bed was free. Ulrich followed her in but did not lay down on the trundle bed. Instead he settled himself in the chair by the window and cracked the shutter open slightly, preparing to take the last watch of the night.

The false dawn had started to stain the horizon when a hulking, shaggy black shape lumbered into the yard, dragging a prone orc crossbreed by one wrist. Ulrich leaned forward, watching it sway towards the barn. He heard the horse whiny a cheerful sounding greeting as it entered and he quietly crossed to the door and let himself out. He ghosted round the edge of the yard and carefully peered round the door of the barn into the gloomy interior.

Thorian lay in a pile of clean straw that had been particularly pulled down over him. Ulrich crouched and snaked to Thorian's side, keeping half an eye on the vast black shape that was in the back of the barn. Winky, turned his head, watching Ulrich as if Ulrich's concern was something rather interesting. Thorian seemed to be alright, at least he was breathing normally and his hand was still attached at the wrist, if rather slobbery.

A truly gruesome crack rang out from the back of the barn. Ulrich looked up to see the dire bear twitching and snuffling as if it was trying not to scream. The noise of gristle crunching and bones being ground against each other turned Ulrich's stomach and then his eyes widened as he saw the bear most distinctly begin to shrink, collapsing into itself as it lost the shaggy look. Ulrich scurried into an empty horse box, even though it took him closer to the now thoroughly distressed bear, counting on its cover to hide him. It was only after he was in the box that he looked up and saw the trousers and shirt draped over the side of the horse box as if waiting for someone. The noises out in the barn reached a peak and then fell silent.

After a moment, Ulrich heard someone shuffle into the last horsebox in the barn and then a hand reached out of the darkness and whisked the trousers out of sight. The sounds of someone getting dressed came quietly from the gloom and then Ulrich saw a very tired looking Black Randle shuffle passed the gate of the horse box. Winky whinnied in greeting.

"Oh yah want yah breakfast, don't yah?" Black Randle said gruffly, "Huh, you're not the one who's been up all night, keeping the monsters from the door." Winky whinnied again. "Alright, alright keep yah fur on." Black Randle clumped over to some sacks and dished out a bucket of oats. "Get yah insides round that lot, we'll have to do a fair bit of haulage today to clean up the mess that lot left last night. Can't bury them, not round here, no holy man to keep them buried. Can't burn them either, would take too much of the wood pile so it will have to be off to the glen with them, let Old Scar Face have them. I'm sure she'll find a use for them." Winky buried his nose in his trough and started munching his oats. "Yeah probably that." Black Randle observed and turned towards the house. "Breakfast for me too I think."

Ulrich listened to him leave the barn and then stirred from the shadows to watch Black Randle stride across the yard. He clumped up the steps to the porch and let himself into the cabin. With one last check on Thorian, Ulrich followed him. He opened the door carefully to find Black Randle putting a deep pot of water on the high bar and slotting the high bar on the jams over the fire. Black Randle swung round when he heard the door open. He gave Ulrich a long look.

"I was just checking our friend out in the barn," Ulrich broke the silence, "He seems find for one who's been dragged about so I'll say thank you for that."

Black Randle looked at him a while longer and then turned to put some more wood on the fire.

"This is why I don't much like having people about the place," he admitted, "They have a habit of seeing things you don't want them to see."

"Then the least said the soonest mended," Ulrich smiled as he sat down at the table. Black Randle glanced at him.

"Have to say you are taking it differently to how I would have expected," he admitted.

"Let's just say before our lass there discovered that noisy little toy of hers, she had some what blistering anger management issues," Ulrich nodded to where Kaelin lay on the trundle bed, arms wrapped around Haggis. Black Randle looked and looked again. Then he sniffed.

"Should have recognized a wolf bred when I saw it," he admitted, "Born with it or cursed?"

"Born with it as far as I can tell," Ulrich answered, "From what she's said her grandfather was not the sort of chap you wanted to meet on a dark night, or any other time of day for that matter."

"Heard tell of a pack like that up North a ways," Black Randle nodded his head, "Heard that someone led the hunters right to them. No loss as far as I'm concerned, that the sort that makes the lives of all of us puca born harder."

"Why don't you give the people of the town a chance?" Ulrich asked, "After all, they have an Ash Elf as a Governor so..."

"Risgath's not bad," Black Randle admitted, taking the pot of water off the fire and washing his hands and face, "Takes a lot for a man to leave his family, even if they don't want him but its not him I worry about, it's the people. It'll only take one trip up and they'll be out for my hide like fleas after a dog."

"Then how come we are not after your hide?" Ulrich asked, "After all as a King's Special we are tasked with dealing with any threats to the realm and we did see you at your full capabilities last night."

"Just said it yourself, you have puca born in your team," Black Randle grunted as he set another pot on the fire and added oats to it, "Be rather double standard of you to turn me in, especially as I was saving your afts. More to the point, I don't think you're even seriously considering it but as to what you are trying to get me to admit - a person can be smart, thoughtful and reasonable. People are dumb - dumb, panicky and aggressive."

"Can't really argue with that one," Ulrich admitted, "Especially as you forgot narrow minded, conservative and prejudiced. But that begs the question of why you keep going back to the town, if that is what you reckon you're going to get if you're outed? Why not just stay up in the woods?"

"Oh I can get me just about everything I need from the woods," Black Randle stirred a generous amount of honey into the porridge pot and dug out another jar of jam from a cupboard, "But there's a few things I can't do on my own, such as a new ax when the old one wears out and cloth."

"No luck keeping sheep?" Ulrich asked.

"Pah," Black Randle made a noise of disgust as he tipped a cup of beans into a grinder and started turning the handle, "Sheep are even worse than people. Winky out there? I raised him from a foal, he knows me and we know each other's foibles. Sheep however, sheep; people are dumb, panicky and aggressive, sheep are dumb, panicky and stupid to boot."

"No doubts there," Ulrich smiled, "Alright I take your point but you might want to consider the fact that if you help out against the Ash Elves like you did last night then you might find that the people are more willing to accept you. After all if you weather the storm out here and the town takes a battering, it is only going to take one loud mouth to ask 'well, where were you?' and you could be in a whole heap load of trouble. Whereas, if you welly in on the Ash Elves and help save the town then you could find yourself being accepted more easily, even if you live out here most of the time. At least you wouldn't have to worry about being found out any more."

Black Randle thought it over and grunted.

"May have a point," he admitted, "Alright, I'll think on it. Not promising nothing, mind you but I'll think on it. Now then if you'd like to slice that there lump of bacon into rashers for us..."

Kaelin twitch her nose as bacon rashers sizzled in the pan.

"What's up?" she blinked blurry eyes as she propped herself up on an elbow.

"Breakfast," Ulrich grinned.

"So if you'd like to scrub up in the pot there," Black Randle pointed at the pot of water that had been refreshed, heated and now sat in the sink. Kaelin rolled her eyes at the pointlessness of 'scrubbing up' but had to admit to herself that she did feel more awake after she'd splashed some water on her face.

Ulrich and Kaelin were tucking into honey porridge and bacon sandwiches when someone clumped up the porch steps and pushed open the door.

"Er, hello," Thorian blinked, picking bits of hay out of his hair, "Can anyone explain to me how I wound up in a pile of grass over in that funny building over there? It's just I can't remember how I got over there."

Black Randle looked at Ulrich.

"You rather wandered into there after our little tiff with the Ash Elves last night," Ulrich replied. Black Randle visibly relaxed. Kaelin raised her eyebrows a touch but didn't say anything.

"Oh did I?" Thorian frowned, trying to shake hay off of his rather sticky fingers. Black Randle put another pot of water on the fire. "I don't remember that."

"What a pity," Ulrich observed after another bite of his bacon, "You were really rather spectacular. Not quite as many as my tally but a respectable number."

"You sure about that?" Thorian looked at him with suspicion, " 'Cause I remember it being really rather close between us."

"Well if you don't remember the fight how can you be sure?" Ulrich asked.

"Oh I remember the fight well enough," Thorian said, "I just don't remember getting into that big old barn building thing."

"Raging like that can take it out of a man," Black Randle observed as he slapped several more pieces of bacon into the pan, "Now come get that gunk off your hands and have breakfast."

"Don't mind if I do!" Thorian grinned. While he was chasing his way down an extra big bowl of porridge, Ulrich and Kaelin looked to where Jeremiah still lay flat on his back.

"You know it really would be a shame to leave him asleep until we're all done," Ulrich observed, "It would totally be unmannerly of us."

"Have to admit I'm surprised that he's slept through all the bacon cooking," Kaelin observed, "You don't suppose that he's sickening with something?"

"Would something that joyful happen to our dear Jeremiah?" Ulrich asked.

"Probably not," Kaelin admitted.

"Oh well," Ulrich stood, "If we don't wake him up he'll only complain at us for the rest of the day and I don't know about you but I don't want to have to cope with that headache while I'm also trying to avoid whatever fun times the Ash Elves have lined up for us."

"Can't say it appeals," Kaelin also stood and fetched Haggis. Ulrich meanwhile fetched a bowl of water and crouching by the bed, dipped Jeremiah's hand in it.

Absolutely nothing happened.

"Have to admit, I didn't see that coming," Ulrich raised his eyebrows, "Alright then - Oh Jeremiah, there's a Hartseer in the bed."

Nothing happened.

Ulrich sat back on his heels.

"That's odd," he said, "That worked like a charm last time. I thought he'd be six feet out of the bed by now."

"Let me try," Kaelin pocked the blowstick into her mouth. Haggis woke up with a rousing, rollicking tune that bounced off the walls of the cabin, making the feet twitch and the blood sing. Even Black Randle started nodding along to the tune and Thorian's eyes light up like a star as he started to beat time with his spoon. Kaelin's colour rose as she blew and blew and blew, fingers running up and down the chanter reed as the tune went on, the music filling the cabin until it seemed that either the music or the walls would have to give way. Thankfully the music did. The tune reached its end and Kaelin let the blowstick drop, gasping for breath as she did so. With a final drone Haggis wound down and flopped.

Still nothing happened.

"Just how on Hestia do you sleep through that?" Ulrich exclaimed, apparently feeling worried about their companion for the first time ever. Black Randle came over and had a look.

"Well he's dreaming about something," he observed, "Look at his eyelids and his fingers. He's dreaming about something but I wouldn't like to say what."

Ulrich stood and leaned a little close.

"You could be right there," he nodded, "I wonder what else..."

Jeremiah was not having a good time of things.

He was... somewhere. Somewhere, he wasn't sure where, he couldn't see. He wasn't even sure if he was standing or floating, he couldn't tell if there was a surface beneath him or liquid about him. Up or down didn't seem to have any meaning and dizziness swept over him repeatedly as his body no longer understood where it was in space.

The only reference point was the... thing that towered over him.

It was huge and it was tiny. It was nothing and it was everything. It was shadow and it was light. It illuminated everything and he couldn't see anything. It was looking at him. He could tell that and that alone. Two massive purple tinted eyes looked at him, as he was a bug, as he was filth, as if he was nothing.

Dizzy, disorientated, bewildered, he reached for something, anything to anchor himself.

"Klu'gath-nath..." he began.

"You dare to call on my name, insect!" the voice alone shock his bones. The shadow moved and Jeremiah could see the silhouette of a massive reptilian head, the light flickering and billowing between its jaws, "You dare to call on my power! Tell me, insect, why I should not erase you from existence? Why I should not render you down to the merest strips of flesh and claim your soul? Answer me if you dare?"

"My Lord and my God..." Jeremiah spluttered.

"Am I? Am I your God?" the being thundered, "What have you given me recently? What souls have you pledged unto my greatness? What was it had you have offered unto me?"

"Was not the souls of the Ash Elves worthy of you?" Jeremiah asked.

"And which of them did you kill?" the being roared, "Which of them did you lay the knife to? Which of them did you spill the blood of and call upon my name? What in truth have you offered me?"

"I..." Jeremiah began.

"A goblin!" the words hammered on Jeremiah's skull, "A worthless, stinking goblin! The gutter scum of the world! I am beginning to think that the Hartseer creature is correct and I should shake you off like a dog shakes off a tick! Shake you off and step upon you!"

"But my Lord!" Jeremiah protested, "I have the books, I have been studying them, they have flourished under my care..."

"Not as much as the book of the creeping little half breed shadow, that Michael creature," the being flared what could have been wings, "In short, I am much displeased with you, Jeremiah Maat, much displeased. I begin to wonder if you truly are worth my time. Perhaps I should look to one of you companions. That Kaelin girl could be powerful after all. I know who she is descended from and if I awaken her spark, why, it would only need her grandfather's interference to mold her into my true creature. It would be most pleasing to collect one such as she."

"My Lord, I..." Jeremiah began.

Something suddenly seized him by the scruff of the neck and dragged him backwards.

"I am not done with you, insect!" the being roared, lunging forward but the force was irresistible  and Jeremiah found himself crashing down on to the bed, with the discordant screeches of Ulrich's fiddle whining and caterwauling in his ears, loud enough to wake the dead.

"What do you think you are doing?" Jeremiah snapped upright.

"Well, well," Ulrich beamed, "Sleeping Beauty is awake. See, told you I could do it, Kaelin and without having to let Thorian give him a big, wet kiss."

"You wouldn't have dared!" Jeremiah turned an interesting color.

"Oh Thorian was all for waking Sleeping Beauty the traditional way but I suggested that we try my fiddling first," Ulrich beamed.

"Oh yuck!" Thorian yelled, "Why you lying like that?"

Jeremiah looked at him, looked at Thorian, looked at Kaelin trying not to laugh, looked back at Ulrich and started snarling a string of words that blistered and curdled in the air. Black Randle dived and caught the falling jar as several items leapt off the table in self defense.

The ulcerating words scorched through the air and...

Ulrich jabbed the end of the fiddle's bow between Jeremiah's teeth, cutting off the caustic words. They flared and died in a puff of ash and sparks that scoured the varnish off of the end of the bow and charred the wood. With a distressed twong one of the threads of the bow snapped back and lashed across Ulrich's hand, raising a line of red liquid beads. Ulrich jerked back with a curse and nearly dropped the bow. Jeremiah opened his mouth to begin again.

The bang of the jar slamming down on the table made them both jerk round.

"If there's been enough of that language in this house, and I mean both of you" Black Randle snapped, "Then I suggest that you get out of bed and you fix that instrument up before something gets out of hand. The pair of you ought to be ashamed, the whole kingdom's relying on you to save it and you are fighting like a pair of juveniles mucking about with yah father's swords, with no damn idea of how much damage you'll do to each other! Shame and disappointment on both of you! Now then."

He finished with a snort and turned away to a cupboard, dragging out a piece of sandpaper and pot of beeswax that he tossed to Ulrich.

"Sit down and sort that out!"

Ulrich sat and started to rub the char off of the end of the bow.

"You get out of that bed, wash yahself up and have your breakfast, you'll need it where you are going today."

Jeremiah climbed out of bed and had tugged the sheets straight before he realized that he was acting like a boy caught in the beam of his father's number two glare. He turned about to protest and caught a number one glare from Black Randle. He sat down at the table without another sound.

Thorian and Kaelin looked at one another and without a word started dividing up the supplies into four packs. Once he was sure he could take his eyes off of Jeremiah and Ulrich, Black Randle started fishing out extra supplies, bread and cheese and dried fruit pemmican, as well as some local medicine supplies.

By the time, he was working the beeswax into the bow, Ulrich felt he'd done enough penance.

"There's one thing that's still rolling around in my brain," he didn't look round from rubbing the beeswax in. Black Randle grunted.

"You mentioned someone who lives in the local area this morning and I think I'm curious," Ulrich continued. Black Randle grunted again but it was a more cautious grunt.

"Out of interest," Ulrich asked, "Who is Old Scar Face? And do we need something to give her?"

"Ah, her," Black Randle relaxed, "She's an old grey dragon who lives up in the deep forest where it starts getting really rocky. Has her lair up there. See her child drifting in and out on occasion. We nod to each other when we cross paths but other than that we have different lives."

"Grey?" Jeremiah asked, "Don't you mean silver?"

"Nah, grey. Same color as the ash there," Black Randle nodded at the fire place, "Mouthful of teeth. Would not want to be the ones who irritated her but she was crippled many a year ago."

"Crippled?" Kaelin asked, "What could cripple a dragon?"

"No idea," Black Randle admitted, "But one wing is a mangled mess. She couldn't fly even if she wanted to. Its a shame, no one should have to live as a half being but she gets along as good as she can. In that way, we're not that much different. Now then, I followed our unpleasant visitors last night and I've marked the trail back to were they came from."

"Wasn't that something of a risk, my good sir," Jeremiah oiled.

"More to them than to me," Black Randle replied, "Now, if your lassy can follow that trail you should get there fairly soon. Now you can go when ever you like but I'd say that those fellows are going to be sleeping it off today so you might want to call in before they wake up again."

"Fair advance," Ulrich stood up, looked over the repair job one more time and then wrapped the fiddle and bow back up again, "Shall we people?"

"Oh is there a rush?" Jeremiah asked.

"No time like the present," Ulrich smiled, "Wouldn't want breakfast to wear off before we get there and I think we have pressed upon our good host's patient and his larder, for quite long enough."

"Oh very well," Jeremiah huffed.

Stepping out on to the porch they slung their respective packs up on to their backs, Jeremiah staggering a little under the unaccustomed weight.

"Well, good luck to yah," Black Randle nodded to them, "That's the way you want to go." He gestured across the clearing. Kaelin turned her head and saw the tree that had a great pale patch torn through the bark to the whiter under layer. She walked up to it and sniffed.

"See anything strange this morning?" she asked Ulrich.

"Let's just say that it is a shame that you and Black Randle have such an age gap between you," Ulrich noted, "You could have got on very well other wise." Kaelin said nothing at all, just walked off into the forest, eyes looking for the next pale patch. "He said that he'd heard about a pack up north that were the sort you wouldn't want to meet them at any time of day." Kaelin walked faster. "He said didn't blame whoever it was who lead the hunters to them." Kaelin stopped, one foot raised. "He said that it was no lose, that those like that pack just make life harder for all the puca born."

Kaelin put the foot down and drew a long breath. Ulrich didn't move, letting her have her space and when Jeremiah and Thorian caught up Kaelin wiped her face and moved on, following the trail of slashed white wood.

As the sun climbed higher and the woods warmed up, they climbed higher into the forest, Jeremiah bringing up the rear but some how managing to not complain with every step. Or maybe he had just learnt that nobody would have any sympathy. It was towards mid morning when Kaelin stepped passed the last of the trees in a boggy, swampy area and crouched down.

"What's up?" Thorian asked as Ulrich joined her.

"Trail's end," Ulrich said standing back up.

"Well thank the God's for that," Jeremiah gasped, leaning on a rock.

"No, not really," Ulrich corrected. Jeremiah looked up and saw the dark cleft in the rock face, the driping mosses and lichens hanging over the edge.

"Many in," Kaelin counted the foot pints in the soft, black mud, "Few back."

"In there?" Jeremiah asked.

"In there," Kaelin straightened. The dark mouth of the earth looked back at them, breathing its scent of damp and chill.