And now we meet our third protagonist...
This was absolutely not in my plans today, he thought as he gazed down into the cavern, yellow-gray stone tinted orange and red by unnatural fire burning in the center of the cave. Figures moved around the fire in an orderly, menacing progression, muttering in a language he didn't understand.
But he didn't need to understand much; he'd only dabbled a little in magic so far, but what he saw now… a huge five-pointed star, carven into the bedrock of the cavern, inlaid with metal and dark gemstones and – at each point of the star – a pathetically twisted body impaled straight through the chest as though by a spear that penetrated the living rock below… that pretty much tells me all I need to know about what kind of magic this is. He grimaced and closed his eyes, setting his jaw and feeling his hands grip the hilt of his new sword tightly, but he couldn't shut away the sight of those five murdered people. Rushsong, Shapeclay, Foamcloak, Divedeep, Tipstone… I knew them all. Five disappeared. Five dead.
It had all seemed so simple this morning; he'd gone to the temple to pray, as were most of the others with five of their own gone. Everyone had been offering help, planning to assist in the searches; as usual, almost no one had noticed him. That happened a lot when you were that small, a runt who had to literally climb onto the prayer stones instead of squat down like most of the others.
So he'd had to wait until everyone else left to catch old Barkboat's attention. "Hey! Hey! Priest!"
The old priest made a great show of looking around in puzzlement. "What? Are the prayer stones talking now? Oh, it's YOU, little one."
"Five of us gone. One of them my first teacher. No one hunts us. We do not hunt our own. This is … very strange, very bad. This isn't a time for being silly, Barkboat. "
"Tsk, tsk. We are taught that even the darkest times may call for the light of laughter. What brings you here?"
"I want to help."
Somewhat to his surprise, the priest had not laughed, but gravely considered the offer. "Were the times normal, young one, I would have told you to simply stay close and stay out of trouble – hard though the latter would be for you. Yet… your elders and your larger peers have searched far and wide. They have probed the Burning Waters and the Evermists, searched beyond the Rainbow Mountain. Perhaps… perhaps you could see what they cannot." He rocked back and forth, a sign of uncertainty. "It's true that you have much more of the adventurous spirit than most of us; you have even spoken of leaving the village." The priest still seemed uncertain.
"Please, let me try!"
In the end, the priest had agreed, and had even dug around in the castoff and donated odds and ends until they found a suitable weapon – barely a dagger to anyone else, but a mighty blade for someone his size. He had trained with small sticks before; he hoped he wouldn't embarrass his teachers.
Looking down at the scene before him now, he realized that embarrassment was the very last of his worries. I could turn around. I found this tunnel myself, and I don't think anyone else has used it. But… He looked again. Mazakh, snake-demon men. And … other things I don't know, look like bug-spider monsters. Smoke and fog, can't see whatever's leading this clearly.
But, his thoughts repeated again, what would I do? The others aren't really fighters any more than I am. No adventurers in town. If I go back, the others who come here… will get killed off.
It really began to sink in then, as he watched the creatures continuing a ritual which surely meant something far worse. If I leave, no one's going to do anything. At best we'll have to send someone to the Suntree, or Zarathanton, and that'll take… way too long, that's for sure. Then Foamcloak, Divedeep, all of them, they'll have been abandoned. It's really up to me, Duckweed. A one-name runt with a tiny sword.
He studied the cavern more carefully now. Two doors in the walls. They've been here a while. Maybe a LONG while. Now that he thought about it in those terms, he seemed to remember there being a few other disappearances in this general area of the woods not far from the Evermist.
That might explain why he didn’t see any guards near the doors. Everyone in the room was in this ritual-thing. They'd been here a long time and never been found. So maybe I can at least get in and do something.
Climbing down from this point probably wouldn't work. The wall was pretty sheer, and while he was good at climbing, it was a long way down for someone his size. Might not really hurt me… or might, but the fall might draw attention. Don't want to draw attention. Those guys stand like eight times taller than I do even if I stretch up on my tippytoes. So let's go check out that branch tunnel.
The "branch tunnel" was a side passage which he'd ignored because he could see a faint light down the main passage he was following – a light that had led him here. But the side passage, if he was lucky, might lead him to some other part of these caverns.
It was pitch black in the tunnels, and he really wished he could have some light, but even if he'd carried a torch or something with him, he would've needed a way to carry the sword at the same time… and using a light in here might call attention to anyone at the other end. No,just squirm along and let my skin and my sword guide me.
After several minutes of scuttling and wriggling through the dark side passage, he began to see a dim light. A few moments more and he was at a small opening in the side of a much larger tunnel. Sniffing, he could catch the smell of heated rock, snake musk, the undefinable spicy aroma he associated with large insectoids. Same caverns! He peeked cautiously up and down the cave; nothing in sight except greenish lightglobes stuck to the walls at intervals. He moved out and chose to move to the left; that was the direction he thought the main ritual chamber was in.
He moved very cautiously, sword out, even though he wasn't sure what he'd do if he were caught. A swing with any of their weapons will cut me in half. I need to do this sneakily. He remembered that wandering mage giving him some general pointers on magic, and one fact stuck in his mind: the crucial importance of the array or symbol used for a ritual or summoning. That gives me a real strategy. Sort of. Well, it's really more of an idea for what I want to get done. Is that strategy? No, I have to get those monsters out of the room, or at least confused and moving around to get away with it. And I have to do it without them seeing. Now… how am I…
Suddenly he became aware of multiple footfalls behind him. Duckweed glanced around in panic. Can't get back to the hole! The cavern was rough but there were no rocks to hide behind, no open doorways (two closed ones, but the latches were far above him and the fit of the doors far too tight to squeeze under).
Only one chance. He pushed up against the wall and squatted down, seeing vague shadows just starting to come around the gentle bend. Oh, drought and dust, my sword…
There was no time to do any thing fancy; he stuck the sword underneath him and sat on it. Please don't look down, don't look down… or if you do, just see nothing unusual…
Three figures moved down the rough corridor. One was a mazakh, said to be a cross between snake and demon, a venomous reptilian creature on two legs that moved like a striking snake, a long, flexible tail trailing behind it. The other two were ant-headed, with savage cutting mandibles, and armored black-and-red chitinous bodies that also stood on two legs but had no tails – but did have hard-polished wingcases.
The three were talking quietly and moving purposefully towards the far end of the corridor – where, he suspected, the ritual was taking place – when one of the insectoids' glittering compound eyes swept the area lower down. With a sudden chittering hiss it shrank away from Duckweed, causing its companions to instantly draw weapons and look around for the cause of the panic.
Duckweed resisted the almost overwhelming urge to pull out the sword. Not a chance. If they just don't notice the hilt…
The mazakh hissed something and then smacked the insectoid that had seen Duckweed with the flat of his blade. "Idiot. That's the third one I've seen here this week. Not like the ones we've been capturing. Of course, if you want to waste your time…"
The insectoid chirp-rattled something which somehow sounded sheepishly apologetic, and the three went on, having decided that he was just another harmless native of the cavern.
Which, Duckweed thought as he was slowly allowing himself to breathe again, isn't all that unusual.
After all… I'm just a Toad.