Havia stopped suddenly, causing Antios to stumble as he stopped himself from walking into her.
“God’s teeth, give me a warning next time.” He muttered, looking curiously over her shoulder.
“What you got? Pitfall? Spike trap? Darts?” His enthusiasm for delving had come back with a vengeance once they’d entered the nexus. The enforced rest had helped, his mood bolstered by the knowledge that they had a place to go back too, after clearing a couple of floors, a place that was their own. A home.
The others had taken the chance, while in the nexus, to spend the ether they had earned previously. Utig seemed particularly pleased with reaching level six, but then, he had killed an awful lot of goblins the other week. Havia took longer than the others to allocate where her ether was spent. For the first time he could remember they had the luxury of options, instead of only being able to fractionally increase one skill at a time, a level up meant a boost to all your stats, and the choice of a couple of either new skills or boosting old ones. Antios had made a show of looking at his stats, but he hadn’t spent Ether in some time. He had hit level five a while ago, which meant he could choose from a range of extra skill sets, and to be honest he still hadn’t made up his mind. A brief glance told him he was holding enough ether to reach level seven. If he didn’t spend it soon, he could be at risk of ether poisoning. Losing a percentage of his ether spending capabilities, eventually ether poisoning could cause an adventure to become incapable of earning any progress from delving at all.
Havia called it decision paralysis, claiming it happens to a lot of adventurers who focus too much on getting the perfect skills balance. Antios didn’t think it was really that, he just wanted to be the best he could be, make the best decisions to help protect his friends. Ok, maybe it was that.
He’d postponed the decision again, urging them on to the nexus exit.
They had stepped out into a strangely lit network of neatly paved corridors. A dull yellow light emanating down from the corners of the cut stone in the ceiling. Havia was the least happy as this gave the thief no shadows to hide in. They had been walking the corridors for about an hour, with the thief stopping now and then to disarm traps hidden beneath tiles or a wire across their path.
She glanced over her shoulder at Antios while inspecting the corridors tiled floor. Aware he was a little too close he took a step back, smiling childishly as he did.
“So, why’d you stop?” He asked.
Havia looked at the fighter, then at Quink behind him, and finally at Utig bringing up the rear. Something caught her attention further down the corridor, but it was fleeting, furrowing her brow she ignored whatever it was and focused back on Antios.
“Well, firstly, some of these traps have been set recently. No dust on the mechanisms, fresh coverings and someone even replaced the wire on that last one. Secondly, I’m hearing something up ahead, a small group, some weird hissing. Any of you fought Kobolds before? What’s the best tactic?”
Antios had never fought the dragon kin before, he had heard a few accounts of fights, normally over an ale, and it seemed they had a more militaristic society, better organised than goblins, and slightly more intelligent. Using basic tactics instead of overwhelming numbers.
“We don’t get kobolds outside of dungeons, so my tribe never fought them.” Utig commented as Quink shook her head.
Antios cocked his head to the side, trying to make out the sounds that Havia had picked up. She’d invested some of her ether in detection skills, they were obviously already paying off. She grinned at him while he struggled to make out anything other than Utig breathing loudly from the back of the group.
“I can’t hear anything, smart-arse, but let’s switch positions. You and Quink at the back, these corridors aren’t that wide, we shouldn’t get flanked that easily.” Utig was stretching next to Quink as Antios turned to them, the barbarian reached over his shoulder and pulled his axe from its straps on his back.
“You want lead?” He asked as Havia stepped up next to the spell-caster and patted the barbarian on the arm.
“Time to get back into the fray I guess.” She gestured forward with a courtly bow, Utig bowed in return before stepping up next to the fighter.
With the group rearranged Antios led them slowly down the corridor. They crossed two intersections, waiting for Havia to give each one a listen before she waved them forward. It wasn’t ideal, anything could scamper up behind them if they weren’t careful, Antios looked back over his shoulder, pleased to see Havia checking behind them on a regular basis, the thief had drawn one of her daggers, flipping it casually as she stepped silently alongside the spell caster.
It didn’t take too long before he could hear what the thief had picked up earlier. The sounds of a small skirmish, metal on wood maybe, or leather. They reached the end of the corridor and Antios crouched low to scout out the chamber beyond. It was large, with several corridors leading into it on each wall. On the far side many of the corridors were barricaded with crude piles of broken furniture and rubble. One of these barricades had collapsed and around it a group of four kobolds were fighting something on the other side. The kobolds were short humanoids, maybe Quink’s height, with wide lizard heads, leathery skin, and bright yellow eyes which were focused on whatever was trying to break their defences. Their mouths were filled with razor sharp teeth, and they hissed sporadically at the creatures beyond. They wore basic leather armour, with mismatched fragments of metal armour that had been beaten and reshaped to suit them. One of them lunged forward into the barricaded corridor with a spear, spinning and landing what would be a brutally strong whack with their thick stubby tail. They dove quickly back out of reach of whatever assailed them, oblivious to the onlookers in the corridor behind them.
“What do you think?” Havia made him jump as she spoke next to him, he thought he hid it well though.
“Take them while they are busy, and then whatever they are fighting? Or, and hear me out, we go over there and pass this lot completely.” She pointed to a nearby corridor that headed off to the right. The four kobolds were busy with their skirmish and something about sneaking up on them while they fought an unknown foe felt wrong.
“Yeah, for now we can scout out the other parts of the dungeon, they probably have a nest or something somewhere in the opposite direction, I’m guessing we’re at the edge of their territory.” Antios waved off to the opposite side of the chamber to where the kobolds were attempting to push back whatever was attacking their barricade.
“Come on” he signalled the others and led them as quietly as possible across the corner of the chamber and into an adjacent tunnel. Once all four of them were safely out of site, with Utig hovering near the new corridors entrance, they hunkered down to discuss more options.
“Dath mentioned that there was conflict between the kobolds and whatever lived on the floor below, so are we to guess that there’s an entrance to the lower floor past those barricades?” The barbarian had read Antios’ mind, he peeked surreptitiously around the corner to get a better view of the barricades.
Some of the kobolds were already starting to stack more wood and boulders in the corridors entrance while their friends kept poking through the ramshackle structure with their spears.
“We know how most dungeons work, right, there’s bound to be more than one way to that section of this floor, and probably more than one way down to the next level. We’ve been here what? An hour? Let’s keep searching and see what we can find.” As the others nodded Quink raised a hand slowly.
“Just so you know, the closer we get to those tunnels, the more I’m feeling a magical aura. Dark magic, probably necromancy.” She looked uneasily back towards the chamber.
“So, maybe were dealing with undead on the next floor? We can handle a few skeletons.” Havia scoffed, slapping Quink on the shoulder as she began walking slowly down the corridor, scanning for traps as she went.
Their plans were scuppered before they reached the first turning, a small squad of armoured Kobolds walked round towards them. Hissing at the sight of the adventurers. They quickly formed a crude triangle in the wider corridor, protecting the kobold in the middle, who wore slightly more colourful attire.
“Do we fight?” Utig asked as the kobold at the front of the group aimed their spear at the barbarian.
“Yeah, I think it’s time.” Antios replied, unsheathing his sword just as the kobold on his side of the corridor lunged forward, their spear tip easily deflected by the skilled fighter.
Utig, huge axe in one hand, stepped towards the leader of the formation, a menacing grin on his face. He barked something in mountain tongue, and the kobold thrust forward with the broad spear. Utig ducked to the side, grabbing the spear behind the head and pulling the kobold off balance, as they stumbled forward he was already hefting his axe down towards their leathery neck.
Antios was amazed at how fast the barbarian cleaved the kobolds head from its shoulders. The one in front of him barked something to the brightly coloured one in the middle, before stepping sideways to block the gap as the other turned tail and ran. Antios cursed as he deflected another thrust with the spear and thrust his sword up between the mismatched armour. It wasn’t that these kobolds were weak, but they were clearly unpractised at fighting skilled fighters. The third kobold had fallen to their knees, clutching their face in pain, a dagger sticking out where a yellow eye should have been. Utig dispatched it without a second thought. But the brightly coloured fourth one was fast. It had already disappeared around the corner. Antios stepped forward to find an almost identical corridor, but with more adjoining entrances and chambers. The fleeing kobold was nowhere in sight.
From somewhere further down the network of corridors a clanging rang out, over and over.
They didn’t have vast numbers, but they knew the corridors well. The kobolds were always one step ahead. The party fought groups of four or five at various intersections. Choosing to keep moving after each skirmish. Antios’s sword was slick with blood, But so far none of them had suffered anything more than a scratch or a dent to their armour. Havia lost one of her small throwing knives, Quink had pulled at her when the thief had tried to dive past Antios to retrieve it.
“Don’t be a dick, it’s just a knife, you have plenty.” She scolded her as they walked behind Utig.
“But that was one of my favourites, I won it in a card game.” Havia complained as she reached under her cloak and bought forth another blade.
Antios knew she was being cantankerous to distract herself, something about this fight had him nervous as well. So far, they killed one or two of the kobolds and moved on before the others could regroup or band together. The small groups had stayed just that, separate, small groups. He was sure he’d fought the same kobold at two different intersections already. The circular pattern of dull green and grey paint on its armour made it stand out. These weren’t the main force; they were the distraction.
“I think were being led, probably towards a larger fight, or a trap. Keep your wits about you.” they all agreed as Havia stepped up next to him.
“I think the side tunnels loop back on themselves, this route is mostly a straight line, but to where is the question.” She didn’t have time to answer as the next adjoining corridor loomed close and they both saw the waiting line of kobolds.
Antios stopped. Utig took a few more steps before he realised, he was walking ahead alone.
“They’re not coming to us, were fighting them as we pass. Time to change it up, we break through on this corridor and try that route.” He ordered. Utig nodded and veered to the left-hand side, approaching the new corridor with extreme menace.
The kobolds yipped and barked at each other, readying their crude swords and spears. Six of them this time. It appeared the structure of their groups, mostly dull coloured, armoured brutes and one brightly coloured, normally smaller, runner, or maybe a commander? Antios looked further down the main corridor, no side exits in sight. This might be there last chance to get control of their route.
He flicked the tip of his blade up, pointing at the familiar armoured Kobold, its spear wavering as it pointed it towards the focused fighter.
“You could just get out the way?” He said, deflecting the tip of the kobold’s spear out of the way and lunging forward, aiming for a gap in the metal plates crudely sewn onto its leathers. It snarled, letting go of its flailing spear and turning to lunge forward with claws and teeth.
“Invaders must die!” It yelled, startling Antios with the first common tongue he’d heard from the creatures.
The spear was useless for close combat, clattering to the floor as the shorter kobold closed the gap between them. It dodged away from the tip of Antios’s sword, avoiding impalement and let the blade slide across its neck scales, barely scratching them. He changed tactic, kicking out at the creature’s midsection. Kobolds are heavy set, short and robust, muscle, scales, and teeth, with a low centre of gravity. The kick was good, but Antios lacked the brute strength to force it more than a foot over, but that was enough for it to get in the way of its comrades.
Utig had cleaved through the shafts of three of the spears, shattered spear tips and brown staves lay on the ground as the barbarian took advantage of the confusion and swung his axe in an arc towards the first of the creatures to step forward. A loud twang from behind the kobolds front line warned Antios that the two kobolds in the rear were using crossbows, he ducked instinctively and heard a bolt fly overhead. The hairs on the back of his neck were suddenly on end as Quink retaliated in her own special way. Several barbs of blinding light shot past the fighter, striking the kobolds ranks. The yipping and growls between them increased while Antios took advantage of their shock and skewed the kobold in front of him. Forcing his sword into the gap at the creature’s throat and angling up into the creature’s skull.
As it fell to the side Antios turned to see the second of Utig’s kobolds fall to the ground with a gaping wound between its neck and shoulder. The third was already scrambling backwards and tripping in to the two behind, one of which was clutching its shoulder and looking much the worse for wear.
Antios leapt over the corpse before him and skewered the injured kobold, finishing off the beast as it was trying to pat out a smouldering hole in its shoulder. Utig made swift work of the one that was trying to crawl backwards away from him, bringing his axe down on its thick wide head. The final, colourful, kobold was already running away by the time the barbarian had yanked his axe free. A tumult of yips and yaps echoing down the corridor as it ran.
From behind them Quink suddenly spoke up, startling the two fighters.
“We need to burn the corpses.” She declared pointing at the first kobold Antios had killed, it was still twitching on the floor.
“I wasn’t sure until I cast my own spell, but there’s necromantic magic all over this place, the dead might not stay down for long.” The fighter couldn’t help but shiver at the thought. He really, really, didn’t like the undead.
They quickly stripped the corpses of anything useful, or valuable, and piled them at the far end of the corridor. Using some lantern oil Havia had, they got the flames going.
“Ok, so which way do we go, they were leading us that way.” Antios pointed off down the main corridor.
“If the dead get up, maybe they were herding us somewhere it was safer to kill us and burn us without having to lug our bodies around?” Quink said, while watching the pyre with disgust.
“Yes, possibly. Havia, do you fancy scouting ahead, while they seem to be keeping their distance?” He raised an eyebrow at the thief, who was already dropping her small pack to the ground.
“Utig, if you’re ok shouldering this for a bit.” She handed the pack to the barbarian, who slung it over one shoulder as she darted off down the main corridor.
Antios barely had time to untie his water skin from his pack before Havia returned.
“Too much light to get very far unseen. Same deal further along, but the corridors give way to caves just after the next intersection. I’d bet that’s where they are stronger, they probably guard these corridors out of habit more than anything else.” She watched as he took a deep swallow from his skin, then held it out for her to take.
“Well, I’m guessing the loot Dath mentioned is going to have been moved to where the Kobolds live. We’re going to have to really earn our gold this time. These little guys are ok in small numbers, but an organised troop of them could really screw us over.” He bent to pick up a crossbow one of the kobolds had dropped. Passing it to Havia as he looked for the kobolds stash of bolts among the items they had piled up. Asides from the bolts there was nothing else of worth there.
Havia loaded the crossbow, sighting down it casually as the others prepared for the next fight.
“Less risk of losing my daggers if I use this I guess, let’s see how this goes.” She said, winking at Quink and stepping in behind Antios as he led the way towards the caves.