Yes, he's back!
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 the five-pointed star down there with a pathetically twisted body of one of the villagers impaled at each point pretty much told the story. He grimaced and closed his eyes, setting his jaw and feeling his hands grip the hilt of his new sword tightly. 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. 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.
Once his heart slowed to normal, Duckweed looked up at the doors. Have to get through the one… or the other, maybe. Wonder what's through there? He'd seen that the door at the end of the corridor was, as he'd suspected, one of the two into the big cavern. He moved off his sword and hooked it in the little loop of leather tied around his body; if he was going to make a habit of this, he needed to figure out a better way of doing that.
The mazakh were going to be the real problem. The big bug thingies apparently had the instinctive fear of his people that many insects – giant and otherwise – did. He could startle them, make them do stupid things if he worked at it. The mazakh, however, would just as soon eat him as look at him. And at my size, I'm barely a mouthful.
The side door looked like the better bet right now. He still wasn't sure exactly how he was going to accomplish his first goal, which was to either get the monsters doing the ritual in the big room to come out, or at least throw them into a lot of confusion and panic so he could get in unnoticed. And in not too long a time, either; no telling what they were trying to do with that ritual, but he'd bet his tongue it was something really bad.
Focus. You're a Toad, you can handle this. We survive. We always have, even before the Great Dragons, before the Demons, we were here. I can deal with these newcomer scalies and their bug-eyed friends.
Of course, he had to admit as he scuttled over to the side door, we survive sort of as a group and by usually not getting too involved. Adventuring has a way of getting people killed. Why was it I wanted to do this again?
The handle was about three and a half feet from the floor. The one at the end of the corridor had opened without noise, so hopefully it was kept well-oiled. He judged the distance and leaped.
It wasn't the highest leap he'd ever done, or the longest, but it was a hard jump to judge, and he was a little low. He managed to just catch the handle with his slightly-webbed hands and pull himself on top of it. As he did, his tiny sword-blade rapped against the metal of the handle with a clear, if low, chiming noise.
Movement inside! I can hear it! What do I do –
The handle began to turn, tilting downward on his side. He scrabbled desperately, then gave up and dropped down. As soon as the door opens…
The heavy metal-bound door was yanked open and a mazakh glared out, hissing, a jagged-edged sword in its clawed hand. But it was looking out into the corridor, not just by its own feet, and the little toad took the chance to gingerly ease by the creature's front foot. He froze again as he noticed the contents of the room.
Three other figures were near a moderate sized table in the center of the room. One, another mazakh, had risen and half-drawn his weapon; the other two – one an insectoid like the others Duckweed had seen, the other apparently human – were still seated, looking at the snake-man near the door with bemused expressions.
Duckweed was mostly hidden from the group by the mazakh's three-toed rear foot. If he moved out from that, he'd be visible. Maybe they wouldn't notice… but at that range, mazakh were usually very, very good at sensing motion, even if the others weren't. He held still, watching, controlling panic. If I lose control for even a moment, they'll catch me in seconds … and then I'll be lucky to just get eaten.
"Well, Lassish? Anything?" the human asked in a bored tone.
"There seems to be nothing." The mazakh named Lassish still stood immobile, looking up and down the corridor, sniffing suspiciously. "But I know I heard something. Metal, sounded like, striking the door, like someone was trying to slide the latch."
"I heard it too," the other Mazakh agreed. "One of those passing to the Great Summoning, perhaps, brushing by?"
"There was no one in the passage when I opened the door, and the door to the Summoning was closed." Lassish hissed in annoyance, and abruptly let the door swing shut and turned.
The little toad found himself following as closely as he dared on Lassish's heels; it was the only thing he could think of, to let the body and tail of the seven-foot creature hide him as he scuttled across the room. The tail and feet were hideously close and threatened to crush him with every stride, but Duckweed was committed now.
The mazakh reached the table and pulled out his cutout-backed chair, appropriate for a tailed creature; the toad moved completely under the chair as Lassish sat down. "Finally the Summoning, and we're stuck here," the human grumbled, opening his warcard box and checking the positions; the four had apparently been in a match when Duckweed's impromptu knock had interrupted.
"Gladness I feel; wisdom for you, likewise should you feel." The insectoid's voice was a buzz and chatter. He also smells very tasty. Tough, though, probably.
"Because, smooth-skin, a Great Summoning is perilous even for the trained. Sometimes, despite all the sacrifices and preparation, the mazolishta demands more than was expected… and then the Summoners must restrain it, or become sacrifices themselves."
Mazolishta? Duckweed had heard the word before, but never thought he'd have heard it in a real, living context. Great Blackwart, they're summoning one of their Ruling Demons!
The human's voice was tense. "What? Are you telling me that what we're calling up might just decide to eat our souls instead of help us?"
Hissing laughs. Duckweed eased himself from under the chair and moved along under the table. These guys have gotta be guards. And that means… yep, there's an opening back there, an archway.
"Did you think dealing with one of the mazolishta was safe?"
"I figured the boss knew what he was doing."
"Possibility granted; present in this location, is not the 'boss'.
As they were focused on their conversation, Duckweed cautiously made his way out from under the table. Now that he knew what was going on, there was even more urgency. He glanced behind him and shifted his line a bit, trying to keep the wider form of the human between himself and the others as he moved towards the archway. He could see several alcoves on each side of the passage.
Duckweed gave a silent sigh of relief, letting himself sag down so he looked like a brown puddle with warts for a moment, as he reached the first alcove and ducked around the corner, now completely out of sight of the four guards. Inside the alcove were several strongboxes with crude locks holding them shut. But not tightly shut. They've got enough slack, I think, so I could get the top open a little.
He was able to insert his little sword between the top and bottom and lever upward, the lock and hasp allowing slightly less than an inch of opening. Peering in, he saw rows of cushioned spheres of glass with reddish liquid inside. The liquid appeared to glow very faintly.
The little toad shivered. He knew what that had to be. Fire essence. Cases of it. They're armed for a war. Against us? One case of that would be enough – most of us wouldn't fight, just run. But north of here…
It was insane, of course. The Artan – elves, as the humans called them – of the Forest Sea might be the youngest of the Great Races, but they had proven how tenacious and indomitable they were as soon as they had appeared. Still…
He lowered the top of the case quietly and withdrew his sword. Can't open that without making noise. Let's check the other alcoves.
He systematically searched the other three, taking care to not be seen as he quickly moved from one to the other. More weapons, lots of them, varied in style and type. He paused to admire one rack of Zachass, wristblade launchers, with their intricate clockwork mechanisms that allowed the mazakh to fire several of the balanced, circular blades in quick succession. Duckweed loved clockworks and other complicated devices. Gears, levers, springs, pulleys, little assemblies that moved in precision… he'd built a few clumsy devices along those lines himself, but the parts that made up these were works of art. Deadly art though… He shrugged and moved on. Crossbows… slings… What are these little cases?
The cases in question, about his own nose-to-rump length of five inches square, were packed along with slings and slugthrowers, which usually used little round bullets of lead or other heavy, hard material. These are locked too… but I'm another alcove down from the guards, and they're busy with their game…
He examined the box carefully, and finally – almost holding his breath – slid the sharp point of his blade in where he thought the latching mechanism was, and twisted.
Toads can be quite strong for their size, and Duckweed was experienced in using what he had to the utmost. The latch resisted, but he managed to slide the blade in a little farther, braced his feet on the sides of the big chest the box was sitting in, and heaved as he twisted with both hands on the hilt.
The latch gave with an audible pop that surprised him; he paused and listened, but there was no sign that any of the guards, even the sharp-eared Lassish, had heard.
Inside the case were blackberry-sized spheres that mirrored in miniature the much larger ones in the first chest he'd examined, packed in soft cloth. More fire essence in bullet-sizes now. This is bad.
And he was running out of time. Yes, a summoning ritual like that took time, but no telling how long it had already been going on. He had to do something. He gazed around in growing desperation.
And then his golden gaze alighted on the Zachass again.
He paused. And then he smiled, a slight upturn of the almost-immobile lips. If I can have just ten more minutes… He gave the same hop-and-bob that everyone gave when they entered the Temple, and imagined the immense obsidian statue that loomed behind the altar. Blackwart, give me just ten more minutes, please, ten more minutes to work in.
Because if they didn't finish their ritual in ten minutes, the little toad was pretty sure he could make sure they never would.
And now onward!