The leafy branch shifted as he pushed it out of the way, and the man’s efforts were rewarded by the sight of his destination. Up ahead, through several paces of thick forest, stood the claim marker. It was little more than a post with a long piece of red cloth tied to it, but it did its job.
Beside the marker he would find the cave they’d discovered last month. He could still remember it like it had been yesterday. While out surveying the hills, he and his partner and had stumbled across the opening. After a brief debate they had risked a brief foray inside, and they hadn’t been disappointed by what they’d found within.
“Stop standing there and blocking the way, Elred! There are people behind you, and they don’t want to stand in the middle of the woods just so you can take in the scenery,” a deep voice said from behind him.
Elred sighed in annoyance, but started walking forward again. When he had stepped out from beneath the forest canopy and into the sun he turned around, and watched the rest of his party emerge from the trees.
“Why didn’t you take the lead if you’re in such a hurry, Desleth?” he asked his partner.
“Because if someone was going to walk into a mimic or a troll I didn’t want it to be me,” Desleth replied with a chuckle.
Elred rolled his eyes in annoyance. He had been partnered with Desleth for over a decade, and the man’s sense of humor was still as annoying as ever.
“I scouted this path just a few minutes ago. No one is in any danger of walking into a mimic, and you don’t walk into trolls. You won’t see one until it attacks, and then it will pick out the weakest target,” their guide Katha interjected.
“Hear that Elred? That means it would definitely attack you,” Desleth remarked.
“Ha ha, you’re hilarious,” Elred replied in a distracted manner as he scanned the nearby rocks.
“Don’t even joke about trolls. Mimics or goblins are one thing, but trolls are another. If you guys weren’t paying so well I wouldn’t have left Coroulis,” one of the miners added, as he walked out of the woods and into the clearing.
Soon everyone had gathered in the rocky clearing around the claim marker. A huge pile of stones dominated the middle of the forest clearing. Tall trees and thick greenery surrounded them on every side, but the sky above was blue and clear.
There were around a dozen people in their group, and seven pack mules. As Elred watched, everyone began settling down. Packs were discarded, and animals were tied up.
Most of them were handpicked men from the Surveyors’ Guild. That meant they had all signed a contract that acknowledged this claim belonged to Elred and his partner. Guild men were expensive, but they were worth it because using them prevented claim jumping and theft.
Katha was their guide, and was holding up the rear of the group. She was an average sized woman with a lean hard cast to her features, and long brown hair that was tied back in a ponytail.
Elred and his partner had debated hiring her, since she wasn’t strictly necessary to find the claim. In the end, Elred had convinced his partner that they could afford her and an expert on the forest would make the trip much safer. Having her around had certainly reassured him. Running into a troll was unlikely this close to civilization, but not impossible.
The last member of their party was a mage from the Earth Breakers. The mage guild had a deal with the surveyors, and was informed every time a new cavern system was discovered. The mage’s name was Seraj, and he was apparently a specialist in exploring the Dark Paths.
The man seemed agreeable enough, and would probably end up being useful. Elred hoped the mage ended up disappointed with their trip, though. The only reason he was here was to search for crystals, and if he found any it would make their trip a lot more dangerous. Mining in caves that possibly connected to the Dark Paths was bad enough, while mining near crystals was almost suicide.
“We may as well set up here,” Desleth remarked, as he started unpacking his bag.
The group of miners then spent the next hour helping set up their camp. When they were done Elred called a meeting, and they began discussing exploring the cave.
“I’ll be staying up here. You hired me to guide you through forest, not underground,” Katha told them.
“Oh come on! It’s not really any more dangerous down there than in the forest,” Desleth exclaimed in exasperation.
“The forest is my home, the Deeps aren’t,” she replied.
Desleth looked like he wanted to argue, but Eldred cut him off.
“That’s fine, Katha. It’s a good idea to have someone patrolling the woods, anyway. Just make sure nothing dangerous wanders into camp,” he told her.
She gave a brief nod and then turned away. Desleth was scowling, but Elred ignored him. There was no point in forcing Katha to enter the cave with them.
Lanterns and rope were then taken out and passed around. Last but hardly least, most of the party armed themselves with hooked spears. They were the weapon of choice for fighting underground.
Hidden among the rocks behind the marker was a crack in the earth. The miners approached the opening and gazed down into it. It wasn’t that deep. You could jump down to the bottom and easily climb out, even if the tight walls and rocky bottom made that a stupid idea.
On the far side of the pit was the actual entrance to the cave though. It was a dark crack in the wall that led deeper under the earth.
From where Elred was standing it didn’t look like there had been a collapse or anything, not that he’d expected there to have been one. A quick look around also failed to turn up any signs of bears or other unwanted wildlife.
“The first thing we’ll have to do is fix up this entrance; It’s much too hard to get in and out of the crack,” Desleth remarked as he stared down into the chasm.
“We’ll throw some dirt down there to make a ramp, and maybe widen the cave mouth. First let’s get this initial sweep over with,” Elred responded.
His partner nodded and then climbed down into the chasm. When he reached the bottom a few seconds later, one of the men threw him a lantern. Desleth lit it, and then one by one the group started down after him.
As Elred jumped down, his partner stepped into the cave mouth and out of sight. It was a tight fit in the chasm, the rocky walls pressed into Elred from both sides. Rocks scrapped against him as he pushed forward after his partner and the rest of their group.
As he stepped into the rocky maw the light of the sun vanished and everything grew dark. All he could see was the flickering lantern lights ahead of him, and the flashes of light they cast on the cavern walls.
When his vision had adjusted Elred was greeted by the sight of a twisting rock corridor. By the light of the lanterns the grey walls of the cave seemed to have a reddish cast to them. The sound of water dripping could be heard echoing from further in, and the air was moist and warm.
The rest of his party was strung out in front of him, and at the very front was Desleth with a lantern. He was standing beside the mage, and seemed to be conversing with him. After a few seconds Seraj nodded and pulled out a lantern of his own. This one however wasn’t full of oil, but held a crystal instead.
It flared to life, and the cave was suddenly illuminated by steady bright white light. Desleth smiled and snuffed out his own lantern. The cavern looked very different now. The crystal light was much brighter, and made everything look paler instead of red. It also didn’t create any smoke, which was definitely a good thing.
The party resumed moving forward at a slow pace. The prize was still a bit further in, and Elred was excited to lay his eyes on it again, but he also didn’t want to die. Moving quickly while underground was a good way to get yourself killed.
Feeling impatient, Elred moved his way up the line and next to his partner and the mage. They had both stopped walking, and were scanning the shadows between the stalagmites that hung from the ceiling. Desleth then turned around and addressed one of the men behind him.
“Pass me your spear, please,” he told the miner.
Immediately, the man’s spear was tossed up to Desleth, who caught it out of the air. He then aimed it upwards at the ceiling. A second later he stabbed at something behind one of the stalagmites, and there was a hissing noise.
When Desleth’s partner withdrew the spear there was a wriggling form impaled on the tip. Tentacles waved madly through the air and the thing flopped around uselessly for a few seconds, before going limp. The creature looked like a large grey octopus, but with a thick wing-like membrane stretching between all its limbs.
“I see you’ve killed our expedition’s first stone strangler,” Elred remarked, as he joined the mage and his partner.
“It’s just a small one; barely an adult, see,” Desleth responded as he swung the spear towards Elred.
“Hey, watch it!” Elred exclaimed as the spear tip and the dead creature were shoved towards his face.
“Don’t worry; it’s very dead,” his partner said with a humorous grin.
“Ya, but you could still take my eye out with that thing,” Elred replied, as he pushed the spear away and frowned in annoyance.
Some of the miners they’d hired were giving the stone strangler nervous looks. So of course, Desleth waved the corpse in their direction.
“It’s just a stone strangler. It’s only really dangerous if it lands on your head and suffocates you to death, before someone else can cut it off of you,” he told them.
Seraj turned towards Desleth. He had an un-amused look on his face.
“You’re right; there are much worse things down here in the depths than stone stranglers. So, let’s not let it distract us from other threats. We need to stay focused,” the mage told them.
“Good luck with that, because there’s the first of the gold,” Desleth replied smugly as he pointed deeper down into the cavern.
Instantly, everyone went silent and looked that way. They all peered past each other expectantly. The only one that wasn’t looking was Elred. He could have sworn he’d heard something move behind him, but he didn’t see anything there among the rocks and shadows. It was probably just water…
Seraj held his lantern up, and golden veins suddenly shone brightly across the cavern wall, and formed intricate mesmerizing patterns. It was beautiful.
“Thank the gods,” someone mumbled.
Everyone now had stupid grins on their faces. The only person who didn’t seem particularly happy was the mage. In fact he was scowling in displeasure.
“Alright that’s enough. It’s not going anywhere. We need to continue scouting down this passage before anyone can get to mining. If it leads down into the Dark Paths I might have to seal it,” Seraj told them all.
“And we need to see if there’s any more gold down there as well,” Desleth added with a mischievous grin.
After everyone’s fascination with the gold had worn off, they reluctantly moved on and continued on deeper into the cave. Soon, they reached the deepest reaches that Elred and Desleth had entered.
When they had first scouted the passage it had been bare and mostly empty of anything but rock. That wasn’t the case anymore. Piles of dirt lay around the place, and mushrooms were growing from them.
“No wonder there was a strangler so close to the entrance, while we were gone harvesters have moved in,” Elred remarked.
The air was heavy with moisture here, and smelled slightly of compost. It wasn’t a terrible smell, but it wasn’t a good one either.
“Ya, that’s not good,” Desleth added as he looked around.
“They’re just harvesters. The bugs are completely harmless,” one of the miners said.
“They might be completely harmless, but not all the things that come to eat their mushrooms are, and the things that come to eat those things certainly aren’t,” Elred explained.
Seraj nodded in agreement as he raised his crystal lantern up over his head, and scanned the surroundings. The light glinted off the shell of the occasional harvester that was busy working among the mushrooms, or that had taken flight.
“Them being here makes it far more likely that this cave leads to the Dark paths as well. Let’s hope the passage is small and easy to seal,” the mage added.
One of the miners approached one of the harvester mounds and was studying it. Suddenly, he yelped and fell backwards. The soil in front of him roiled and a small thin crab-like creature unburied itself, and swiftly scuttled away.
“It’s just a lurker. They’re harmless unless you’re a rodent,” Elred said in relief.
Several of the other miners chuckled at their fallen companion, whose face had turned red in embarrassment. Seraj threw them all a disapproving glare and they grew quiet.
The mage then started walking forward again, so everyone reluctantly followed him. The twisting passages they moved through continued to be full of harvesters and their mounds. Twice they had to stop to spear stone stranglers that lurked up in the shadows of the uneven ceiling.
They didn’t however find any more gold, much to Desleth’s disappointment. Elred was fine with that though. There was more than enough of the stuff near the entrance to set them up for life, if they managed to get it home.
“How much longer are we going to explore?” he asked the mage. “Because this is just more of the same; rocky stone passages full of dirt mushrooms and bugs.”
“It looks like the way forward widens significantly up ahead. We’ll see what’s there, and then decide,” the mage replied as he continued walking.
Elred sighed, and shared a knowing look with Desleth. The bloody mage was probably looking for trouble, and hoping to find some signs of crystals. Everyone else was happy with the gold, but apparently not Seraj. Elred really hoped the mage didn’t find anything up ahead.
The sound of dripping water grew stronger as they moved carefully forward, until Elred realized why. The natural chamber up ahead of them was much wider than the passage they’d just come from, and in the center lay a pond sized pool of crystal clear water.
Long stalagmites reached down from the roof. Several of them reached all the way down to the ground, and formed smooth stone pillars. Just with a quick glance around Elred was able to see at least two side passages that led deeper underground, and probably to the Dark Paths.
The entire chamber echoed with the hypnotic sound of lapping water, and falling droplets. The only other noise was the rasping breath of the newly arrived men.
The floor of the chamber was several feet below them, and its smooth layered surface had obviously been worn down by water over countless ages.
“Well, isn’t that something,” Desleth remarked with a hint of awe in his voice.
“I wonder if any other human has ever set his eyes on this before,” Elred mused aloud.
Seraj just grunted in reply. He then raised his lantern high and it flared brighter than ever. The white light burned the shadows from the chamber ahead of them, and revealed its hidden contents. Tall bumps scattered across the floor that Elred had taken to be rocks or natural formations were actually alive.
There were dozens of the creatures, and each one of them was the size of a large dog. The light seemed to startle them because the closest ones started moving. Six long legs stuck out from a body that resembled a gigantic insect or crab.
Their grey shells were curved and spiky in a way that helped them camouflage with the stone. Two huge wicked looking pincers extended out from the front of the beasts.
“Cave crabs, they’re nasty if you get close to them, but not man eaters. Unless you’re already dead, that is,” Elred said.
“Ya, this looks like the perfect place to seal the tunnel. It’s a shame though, that we won’t be able to see this ever again,” Desleth remarked.
Elred was just about to reply when he noticed Seraj was staring intently at the center of the chamber, and the pool of water there. He followed the mage’s gaze and didn’t see anything at first, but then the water rippled ominously. Something large and pale glided through it.
“What is it?” Elred asked the mage nervously.
Seraj didn’t reply; he just watched the pool. The other members of the party began to mutter amongst themselves in alarm.
Then a massive white creature dragged itself out of the water. It was long, longer than a man was tall, even if you didn’t include the tail it was dragging behind it. Its skin was practically transparent it was so pale, and veins could be seen running beneath it.
It was a huge salamander. It crawled cross the cavern floor on four short legs, but it moved smoothly and with grace. Its long snout was pointed in their direction, and it was clearly headed their way.
Its tongue flickered in and out of its mouth, which opened to reveal row upon rows of tiny razor sharp teeth. A pair of gills ran along the side of its neck, but the most startling thing about it was its eyes. It didn’t have any. Its skull was completely smooth where they should have been, and yet it was swiftly and unerringly racing towards them.
“Okay that’s dangerous. I’ve never seen one of those,” Desleth remarked nervously.
“It’s a blind hunter, and yes it’s very dangerous. This one shouldn’t be too much of a problem though. Creatures such as it are at their most dangerous when you don’t see them coming,” Seraj remarked.
The mage then passed Desleth his light, and raised his staff. He aimed the end of it towards the salamander that was stalking towards them. A second later the air rippled and a bolt of force shot out towards the blind hunter.
The magical attack missed the salamander, but slammed into the ground beside it. Bits of rock flew through the air, and a loud cracking sound reverberated through the cavern. The attacking salamander was thrown off its feet and sent flying into a nearby stone pillar, as a wave of air washed over the watchers.
The noise startled the cave crabs, and they began running for shelter. Several dashed into the water and disappeared, while others hid among the rocks. The salamander itself lay prone and unmoving.
“See, as long as you don’t let them sneak up on you they’re not a real problem,” the mage told the others as he grinned smugly.
That was when Elred heard a scuttling sound on the rocks below them. His first thought was that the noise was probably a cave crab. He leaned over the ledge at his feet to check.
A rather large cave crab was climbing up the rocks, and headed in their direction. He sighed with relief, when he realized that it wasn’t anything worse.
Wait… The cave crab was rather large; it probably weighed as much a man, and it had an odd purplish tint to its carapace. In fact, it kind of looked like it had bits of crystal growing on it…
“Shit, mutant crab,” Elred yelled in panic as he backed away.
“Get back, all of you,” Seraj yelled as he stepped forward.
He almost seemed excited at the presence of the mutant. Fucking mages, and their obsession with crystals!
No one needed to be told twice. The miners and their two employers hurried back into the passage behind them. The mage himself took a few steps back. He then waited for the monster to pull itself up over the ledge, so he could get a clear shot with his staff.
Just as the creature reached the top it lunged at Seraj, and he fired his staff. The bolt of force hit the mutant head on. It seemed to hang in the air for a second, with its claws extended and its legs dangling below it, until the moment ended and the creature ruptured.
Purple flames burst out from its crumbling shell and washed over the mage. Seraj had no time to protect himself. There was a brief scream before he vanished behind the curtain of fire.
The cave rumbled and bits of rock fell around them. Elred looked up in alarm. The cave was collapsing!
“Run!” Desleth yelled as he took off towards safety.
Everyone else was right behind him. Luckily, Desleth still had the mage’s lantern and it lit their way. They all ran madly towards the exit as the flames and falling rocks chased them. The sound of shifting stone was overpowering now, and the air was hot and dry. One of the men beside Elred tripped and fell. No one had any time to help him, or even look back.
Up ahead the exit came into sight, and daylight streamed through the opening. The rumbling behind them seemed to have stopped, but everyone was still too terrified to stop running. They couldn’t all fit through the entrance at the same time though, so Elred slowed.
Desleth had already reached the exit, but he’d also stopped there and was lighting the way for the others. As the men in front of him fought to get outside, Elred addressed his partner.
“Let’s get the hells out of here,” he said.
Desleth nodded in agreement.
“We can come back later and see if the cavern is stable. Hopefully, that gods cursed explosion sealed that chamber and it’s safe now,” he replied.
Elred coughed as he inhaled dust that had been thrown into the air by the explosion, and then hurried through the now empty opening. Once outside he took a second to bask in the bright sunlight and fresh air. The sound of leaves blowing in the wind could be heard in the distance. Relief washed through him; he’d had more than enough of caves for a while.
As he pulled himself up out of the chasm he looked around and relaxed. His muscles were tight and sore from all the frantic activity. Where were the other men, though? They’d been right in front of him…
There was the slightest whisper of sound from behind him, but before he could turn around his head was thrown forward as something smashed into it from behind. Elred gasped in pain as he staggered, and then collapsed limply onto the ground.
Confused but still lucid, he tried to move but couldn’t d manage more than a loose flop. Something grabbed his ankles and began to drag him out of sight behind a rock. To his horror a pile of bodies lay there. All the miners had been ambushed as they’d rushed out of the cave and climbed out of the chasm, just like him.
Even Katha’s body lay there, and it wasn’t a pretty sight. Most her clothes had been ripped off and the flesh underneath had been mutilated. Elred felt a wave of horror and despair wash over him at the sight. What the hell had done all this? Why couldn’t he move?
As he struggled desperately to overcome his paralysis, he was suddenly released. A pair of green feet then descended and filled his vision. They were quickly followed by the leering face of a yellow eyed hobgoblin, as it leaned over him.
It grinned wickedly as it reached over him with one of its clawed hands. Elred couldn’t even scream as it ripped out his eyes, just choke and squirm mutely.
“Elred, where’d you go?” Desleth’s voice rang out.
It was the last thing Elred ever heard.
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