An Encounter Below
The drop through the hole to the flat stone landing directly below it, wasn't more than the height of the average man, but the journey into the absolute darkness below still worried Damar. Tucking himself in close to the damp wall, he made room on the stone platform for the others to follow.
Titan was second, and with him came a welcoming shaft of light. His storm lantern was proving far too useful, and Damar suddenly had a sense of dread that something could happen to it, leaving them trapped down here in darkness. The Tartarean had never really realized his discomfort in the dark. He recognized his difficulty in seeing in the dark, more poorly than any other non-human race he had encountered. But there was something else in that blackness. It wasn't his inability to see that bothered him. Something far deeper tugged at him in the shadows.
The light from the lantern was a comforting sight, and the Tar looked around the room to get his bearings. The light of the simple oil lamp didn't cut far into the room that opened up beyond the stair. It flickered and glistened off of roughly hewn walls, slick with rainwater seeping in from above.
As Jamfire descended into the room, Karenna tucked tightly into the crook of his arm, Damar took a hesitant step down the stone steps. They were solid though unprecisely cut. Each step varied in depth and height, making them awkward to descend. The entire stair, fixed firmly to the side wall, appeared to be cut from the rock wall itself. In fact, as they moved down and into the room, it looked as if the entire room were simply cut out of the mountain rock. It was almost box-like in shape, as if the room had been built up with stone walls, but no brick or seem could be found. Closer inspection of the wall, as Damar kept his hand there for support down the steps, showed rough tool marks that had carved the room from solid stone.
"Is this dwarven architecture?" asked Jamfire, looking closely at the chips and scrapes along the wall.
"No dwarf would claim this sort of work," replied Titan with disgust. He turned to the elf to clarify, "It is too rough and asymmetrical. Geometry is everything to a well skilled dwarfsmith. No something else cut this room, but something far cleverer than a burrowing creature."
They reached the bottom of the steps and Titan pushed ahead to lead with the lamp. Walking into the center of the room, they could just make out all four walls of the room. The floor was not tiled or built up of brick, and so it listed awkwardly in some places. The room looked square enough that the slight imperfections almost made them dizzy as they walked across the uneven ground. Water pooled in sloped areas near the walls, but in others, rivulets of rainwater ran to the center of the room where a crudely cut channel collected it and sent it out to two drains on either side of the room. Titan was right, the room was roughly made, but it was not the tunnel of some unthinking beast. There was reason here. Ideas and ambition held back by limited skill.
"This reminds me of a few tunnels I saw in my youth," continued Titan as he walked around the room, holding out the lantern to inspect the walls. "The tool marks remind me of goblin tunnels, but I have never seen them attempt geometric structures."
"So what do you make of that?" Jamfire asked. "Do you think we are dealing with a goblin horde with some sort of non-goblin leader?"
"It is not unheard of. In the south, we have dealt with barghests leading goblin troupes."
"What is a barghest?" Damar inquired, dreading to actually learn the answer.
"Ugly goblin-hounds," Titan said, practically spitting the words out.
"When your otherworld ancestors, the Tartareans, came to Urth, they brought with them all manner of goblin-kind," Jamfire explained. "Barghests were wolf-like goblinoids with a dark cunning and foul appetite. Legend says they changed somehow when they crossed into our world all those thousands of years ago. Some say it was the new magic of our world that they so greedily devoured, though most think it was a new diet of human flesh that did it. They became horribly intelligent creatures."
"After the gobbos and their ilk left their red masters, some of the barghests started building clans and armies out of their stupider kin." Titan concluded, "I have seen it myself, nasty buggers."
"But she claimed some sort of wizard was in charge," Damar motioned to Karenna.
"It wasn't a barghest or any foul gobbo that did this to me," the chicken replied.
"Well whatever it is that is leading these things, it is certainly smarter than most gobbos," Titan turned and continued to follow the wall. "I mean look at..."
Titan let out a hushed yelp as he stumbled on the uneven floor. He fell to the floor, but managed to roll to his side, protecting the lamp from shattering or spilling oil all over the stone. Looking up from where he fell he noticed the wall changed in the nearest corner. A crude door, no bigger than four feet was cut into the wall. A thick curtain of leather scrap was strewn across the opening. The leather was pale and grey like the stone around it, letting it nearly blend in until the light of the lantern hit it directly.
Titan was about to announce his discovery to the others when his round dwarven ears picked up the faintest sound. His hearing was better in the lower ranges, evolved over the millennia to detect subterranean sounds. But he listened intently, and unmistakenly heard what sounded like snoring.
It was higher pitched and nasally, like the snooting noises of a sleeping hound. Titan's mind instantly flashed to his childhood memory of the hound-like barghest. But his heart quickly slowed as he assured himself that this wasn't the sound of a beast nearly that big.
Titan pulled himself to his feet, his boots scrapping against the uneven rock. He motioned quietly with his arm in front of the lantern, beckoning the others to him. As they approached, he pushed a solitary finger to his lips, then to his ear. He pointed at the leather door, hoping his silent signals were understood. The others stood motionless, listening.
The snoring stopped suddenly and everyone froze. Damar could hear a soft mumbling, then the snoring resumed. It was staggered.
"There are two things in there," he whispered almost inaudibly.
"Hold this," Titan pushed the lantern toward Damar and the Tar took it.
They watched as the stout dwarf crept towards the flap of leather. He looked at Damar and motioned with his hands, pushing them away from him.
It took the Tartarean a moment to understand, and he moved the lantern away, casting the dwarf in deeper shadow as he quietly opened the flap. He looked in for what felt like an eternity as the others held their breath.
As Titan's eyes adjusted to the low light he surveyed the room. It was nearly pitch black, a spattering of phosphorescent mushrooms the only real light source. A top a rickety wooden bench, a single candle wick glowed with a tiny pinprick of ember. Beyond the bench, upon simple stools sat and snored two small creatures. Each no bigger than three feet if they stood up, the creatures slouched over, sleeping. One leaned on a spear propped against the floor. The other, loosely held a tiny knife, though really it was barely larger than a letter opener. Guards no doubt, asleep while on duty. But if there were guards, then there was something or someone to be guarded.
Titan pulled his head from the room and looked back at the others.
"Two creatures, little things. Guards I assume."
"What are they?" pushed Damar. "Goblins?"
"Not like any I have seen before," replied the dwarf. "Smaller."
Damar gripped his staff tightly, but could see the lantern light moving in his shaking hand.
"Karenna," Jamfire said to the bird as he set her upon the ground. "I suggest you keep back here for the moment."
"What are we going to do? We can't just kill them while they sleep, can we?" asked the Tartarean.
"Why not?" returned Titan moving closer to the others. "They stink like gobbos, and surely if we leave guards alive, it will only be more to deal with later. Why not just slit their throats quickly and be done with it."
"I am not sure that is the best course of action, Titan," Jamfire leaned on his own staff, a gnarled piece of ancient wood, intricately marked with strange sigils. "We are not entirely sure what they are, or if they are even our enemy."
"Of course they are!" Titan's voice was a harsh whisper. "I am telling you they are from the Dwelling and the world would be better off with a few less of them."
"Some could say that you, dwarf, are a Dweller too. Your kind came crawling out of the rock as well."
"You take that back, point-ear. The dwarves are nothing like the Dwellers. We have sacrificed countless generations to keep those foul beasts from beneath the earth in check. If not for us, you surfacers would have a lot more horrible things to deal with."
"Fine. Fine. I take back what I said about the dwarves, but how are you so sure that these things aren't as innocent as your own people. If your race came from under the mountain but are not in league with the darkness, then how can you be so positive that they are?"
"Uh, guys..." Damar tried to interupt.
"It is just a gut feeling, are your people too busy looking for signs that you don't trust your guts anymore?"
"Perhaps we just have less room in there for all those 'feelings'," Jamfire retorted.
"Guys!" Damar's voice raised beyond a whisper and it cut off the bickering.
The elf and dwarf turned to Damar, inquisitive looks on their faces. The Tar was only pointing at the doorway. When they turned back to the object of their discussion, the light of the lantern illuminated a small creature standing under the parted leather curtain. It was a full foot and half shorter than the dwarf, its thin claw-footed legs holding up a scrawny frame. It stood awkwardly, like a dog trying to balance on its hind legs. If one attempted to cross breed a bipedal hound and a reptile, they would come close to the thin little creature that stood before them.
It stared at them in confusion, its wide yellow eyes reflecting back most of the light from the lantern. Twisting its head like a confused puppy, it snapped a beak like mouth full of sharp reptilian teeth. It called to its partner in the other room in a series of chirping barks.
The creature moved fully into the larger room. It stooped forward, a short spear gripped in red-skinned claws. It sniffed at the group as it pushed forward, clicking and chirping in a language no man could try to dissect let alone imitate.
"Well, I suppose that decides it then," stated Titan happily. The dwarf pulled his hammer from his belt.
Karenna squawked and fluttered back into the darkness closer to the stairs as the figures met in the thin light of the lantern. Wild shadows danced across the uneven walls as the storm lantern bounced in Damar's grip.
Titan was first to leap forward, swinging down with his hammer in a broad stroke. The hammer cut through the air, barely missing the fast moving creature, striking the stone floor with a clang. The creature moved in a red blur around the dwarf, slashing with claw and spear at his boots.
"Fast buggers!" Titan exclaimed as he rotated to take another awkward swing.
The second of the creatures emerged, holding its tiny sticker in a tight clawed grip. It swung down with the blade pointing to the floor, attempting to stab anything that came near.
Damar was about to move forward and strike with the tip of his staff, when both he and the creature were suddenly distracted by a bright red light. The creature winced from the brightness, shielding its large crocodilian eyes.
Turning to his right, Damar looked at the source of the blazing hot light. Jamfire stood in a wide stance, his hand dancing around the tip of his staff. With each elegant movement, thin red hot flames licked and chased his fingers. Building up a floating sphere of dancing fire, Jamfire thrust his hand forward, slinging the ball of flames. It tumbled through the air, bathing the entire room in a warm glow. It struck the creature square in its unprotected chest.
At first it appeared the ball disapated as burst across the creatures torso, pushing him back slightly. But suddenly, the tiny hairs across the beast's body fueled the spreading flame. The tiny creature yelped in pain as it attempted to run from the fire engulfing its body. It ran full speed into the stone wall, knocking it to the ground. The red-skinned creature began to blacken and it didn't rise again.
The first creature continued to elude the swiping strikes of Titan's hammer. It bounced in and out of the dwarf's reach, stabbing at him with the spear. A number of strikes found their way home, but failed to cut deeper than the outer layers of Titan's cloak.
Jamfire made ready to call up another spell. Damar moved in with his staff ready to strike at the red creature. But before either could make their move, Titan paused. He closed his eyes briefly, taking in a breath. Letting it out in a deep roar, he stomped his foot to the ground. It echoed through the stone like a heavy hammer strike. It was perfectly timed to the creatures frantic movements, shaking it from its feet and tumbling it to the ground. The dwarf didn't miss a beat as the creature fell, the heavy hammer struck it down.
The dwarf returned his hammer to his belt and put a rough boot into the sack-limp creatures dead body.
"Well whatever they were, they are dead now," Damar said.
"And the world is better off without them, like I said." Titan had a boyish smirk on his bearded face.
"The question of what they were is still an intriguing one," said Jamfire as he moved to the creature that the dwarf had dispatched. The charred remains of his own kill would yield far fewer answers. "Karenna, do you recognize these creatures?"
"I don't know what they are, if that is what you are asking," the chicken emerged from the shadows, her sharp-tongued attitude no worse the wear after the fight. "But they look like the creatures that carried me off. The ones working for the thing that did this to me. Though he looks nothing like them."
Jamfire poked at the creature, turning it over. He mumbled to himself as he reached into his pouches, pulling out a number of small journals wrapped in oiled leather.
"What do you think they are?" Damar asked as he approached the elf, bringing the light closer to peer down at the scrawled notes and drawings in the books.
"I am not entirely sure, but they match the description of a creature I once read about in my training," the elf flipped through one of the journals, finding the right page, he turned it to the others.
Upon the page were countless notes scrawled in both common and elven tongues. A lot of good either would have been to Damar for he lacked an ability to read any language. Next to the scribbled words was a sketch of a strange animal that looked like a dog standing upright with a long lizards tail covered in spikes.
"That doesn't look anything like it!" exclaimed Titan incredulously. The dwarf looked back and forth between the page and the limp creature.
"The image isn't important, merely an artist's interpretation from an oral account. But the description is the same. Red skin, dog like body, with reptilian eyes and scales."
"So what is it then?" Titan was growing impatient with the exercise. His blood was up and he would have rather had something to smash than to study.
"A kobold. Or something similar. My notes state that they were one of the slave races of the Tartareans, your ancestors Damar."
Damar hated the reminder that he came from such hated stock. It had been millennia since the Hell War ended and most of the Tar invaders disappeared. He could look at his red skin and feel his ridged horns and knew full well that he was born from those alien beings, but it wasn't who he was. He never tried to dominate an entire world of free people. He never owned a slave, nor sent it into battle as fodder for his enemy's blade.
"They bare some similarities to Tartareans, actually," continued Jamfire, studying the body and making new observations in his journal. "More similarities than any other Hellborn race. Perhaps, somehow they are related to the Tar," the elf's voice trailed off as he muttered only to himself.
Damar turned away from the dead kobold. He didn't care if they were related. He didn't even want to think about how he was related to the Tartareans of old. He didn't want to be Hellborn. He hated that term. A sentiment he got from his mother. She too despised the terms used to refer to the Tartareans. Their world was filled with a bright sun and intense heat. Their bodies were built to protect them. But their image matched too closely to the human idea of a daemon, and their world too similar to some archaic idea of hell. The ideas stuck. The common tongue word tartarean, itself came from a word for hell. The original Tar language was called 'infernal' by humans. And worst of all, Tar young were known as imps.
Damar's mind wandered back to his childhood. To his mother. To that night.
"Look what I found," said Titan, emerging from the small room where the kobolds had sat sleeping. The dwarf held out weapons that appeared small even next to the short dwarf. He held out the tiny dagger to Damar, breaking him from his memories. "It ain't much, but can't say anyone has lost out by having a small blade on them."
The Tar took the knife, examining it carefully. It felt tiny in his hand, like he would be stabbing someone with an oversized toothpick. But after the fight, he felt rather unarmed. He tucked the blade into his boot.
"I also found these." The dwarf held out a small ring of keys.
"What do you think they go to?" Damar asked curiously.
"I was thinking it might go to that door right there." Titan pointed at the corner opposite of the guards chamber.
Holding up the lantern and squinting against the dim light, Damar saw a wooden door fitted into the wall. He wondered how they could have missed it, it seemed so obvious now. Then he looked at the two dead kobolds on the ground. He felt unprepared for battle in this dark space. Could he be so easily distracted and unaware of his surroundings? What would happen if they came across something far worse than a couple of tiny kobolds. Would he have the presence of mind to know where to flee?
He moved in closer to the others. At least he wasn't facing this alone.