“I don’t like this one bit, Captain”
“Shut up and keep moving, Yoop”
A gullet of stone stretched out before them, twisted and knobbed, lit with a dim fungal smear that coated the tunnel in fuzzy luminescense. It was cold, of course, the wind never stopped blowing. Got into your ears, into your eyes, froze your daks and left you cranky and stiff after trying to sleep on cold rock miles underground. Somewhere the constancy of water dripped into stagnant pools crusted with minerals.
The torch in Yoop’s hand threw crazy, swooping shadows as it bounced off the twisted passage, the ceiling and floor undulated, constantly throwing the light into useless shadow or blindingly into his eyes. The smoke threatened to choke him and he had nearly bitten through his tongue trying not to cough. His other hand, white-knuckling the pommel of his sheathed sword, constantly twitched and his fingers ached in the cold, wet wind. He was freezing cold and terrified. They had lost half their group already and they were nowhere near the heart of the nest, Yoop knew it. He couldn’t smell the fetid stink yet.
The group was strung out over nearly 30m, a deliberately loose formation, they had learned the hard way that the traps that plagued this godsrotting vermins den were specifically designed to catch groups of the unwary. As they had caught Unser and Ooloop 2 days ago, their guts forced out through dozens of sharpened sticks at the bottom of yet another pit trap. The screamed and pleaded as they died, but the Captain had ordered them on, abandoning the dead men, his face like a chunk of stone chiseled in some age of yore where mercy was not a known commodity.
Nala glared at the Captain’s back, his teeth showing, wondering if tonight was the night he would work up the courage to slit the old bastard’s throat.
The hatred sustained him, kept him warm and kept his belly from rumbling (mostly), and he was starting to see the ex-assassin’s death in increasingly more and more vivid hallucinations. His spellbook dangled from the Captain’s rucksack, confiscated since Nala had tried to fireball the old man when they were swarmed by the vermin right after they dropped into the cavern and were ambushed. The mage denied it, of course, claimed that he was just trying to break the ambush, but the old man knew better, could see it in Nala’s eyes, and took it from him when Nala was asleep.
No amount of arguing would pursuade the Captain, and Nala was too much of a coward to challenge the man again, not with Yoop and Remorsh backing him up, but he silently whispered a thousand alternate scenarios where he told the Captain exactly what he thought of him, his offspring, and his whole stinking line back to the First Seas.
The rogue, trailing the pack, could hear Nala muttering to himself, and he knew that the group was in trouble, and not just from the goblinswarms. They were cracking apart, day-by-day, and he counted their costs. Ooloop and Unser. Hesschik poisoned by dozens of shit-smeared darts in the Bell Cave. Little Pie, the torchbearer. The kid had a bucket of rot grubs dropped on him when they passed into the lower tunnels and the kid died calling for his mama. Remorsh shook his head. “No one should go out like that.”
He kept a steady eye on their backtrail. They had been attacked more than once by skirmishers materializing out of the unrelenting darkness, who swooped onto them from every direction, jabbing with rusty spears, and disappeared into the crumbling shadows.
He didn’t hear anything, but that didn’t mean a damn thing. He kept both his long daggers in his hands, the blackwort poison that coated their blades sourly faint to his big nose. The gnome knew they were deep underground, maybe 3 miles, and they hadn’t even reached the outskirts of the colony yet. He checked their rear again and suddenly heard Yoop cry out in pain.
Something had stung him in the neck, hot pain lancing through him, spreading fast and deep and he knew he was a dead man, “OH GODS THEY GOT ME, CAPTAIN, THEY FUCKIN GOT ME! FUCKIN VERMIN BASTARDS! OH GODS IT HURTS! IT HURTS!”, and suddenly Yoop’s balance was gone and his knees buckled, the torch dropping and rolling away, throwing him and the Captain, who was suddenly standing over him, into shadow.
Yoop was hollering, as usual, the man was an embarrasment, frankly, and he wouldn’t be hiring any more mercs from Billy Toad anymore, he knew that much. He could hear them, in the walls, all around them, and he knew they had no more time. They were not close to the colony, where they might be able to spread out and do some damage, and this made him realize that the goblins knew two things.
One, they knew they were coming and they were scared, they had to be, risking so many ambushers this far from home. And two, that the Captain and his Ragged Men were not like the others who stumbled down here, or sought them out. The Captain’s group wasn’t running. They were moving with stealth and purpose. With light, yes, but that meant nothing where the terrain was so twisted and bent, that a man with a torch was often not seen until you were face-to-face with him. The Goblinae relied on fear tactics and panic. Well, he wasn’t going to give them that, and so they had responded with anger, goading him and his men again and again with wolf-pack tactics, trying to herd them into traps and deadfalls.
The Captain knew that they were being neatly corralled, and hadn’t been moving towards the colony at all, but instead were being led away, and that was fine with him, because he knew something that the Goblinae didn’t – that his goal wasn’t their hidden home at all, but an abandoned digging left behind by the Gemspar Clans, where the prize of his contract was rumored still to lay.
He needed these men, though, the swarms had taken too many, and he knew they would be needed to stave off the predations of Stirge and Carrion Crawlers that prowled these lower sections of the Underdeep at will. He had only one chance – he had to draw them out – where Nala and his twitchy insanity would make quick work of them, magic missle after magic missile racing from the elven mage’s hands in his panic. Problem was, they hadn’t seen any large, open areas since Bells Cave, miles behind them, and he didn’t actually know this section of tunnel and there might not be any open spaces ahead of them, just more winding tunnels, climbing and dropping in turns, like climbing through an anthill.
As he was getting ready to act, the vermin pre-empted him.
They boiled from the walls, from dozens of gaps, tiny feral creatures, grey skin mottled with orange, long pointed ears, sharp, broken teeth and the eerie slits of cat’s eyes. They clutched weapons of all kinds, all were small and cruelly formed, most were rusty and notched repurposed blades from the dead hands of adventurers, and the Captain could see they were smeared with Carrion poison and fecal matter. Both would poison, but the venom of the scavenger worms would leave you twitching with paralysis while your guts turned to liquid.
He must have stepped on Yoop, who bellowed again, but the battlemist had dropped over his eyes and he knew only war.
All around him, in the jumping shadows and light, he heard his crew fighting for their lives.
It was only Day 2.