The wall on the far side of the chamber had been pulled apart. The chiselled edges of well masoned stone giving way to the rock and dirt behind. Another group of kobolds had been standing guard. Only the much faster, colourfully attired one had escaped, the others were taken down without much struggle. Despite their obvious attempts at strategy and military form, the kobolds were still inexperienced compared to seasoned adventurers. Relying too heavily on their spears to keep the adventurers at bay.
“Ok, look, I like a fight as much as the next guy. Maybe more, but I don’t think they’re really into it.” Utig looked nervously down at the burning bodies in the centre of the chamber. The small pile of scaled corpses stank of oil and sweat, the smoke that only recently started rising to the high ceiling was enough to make anyone gag. It was the way of a warrior to die in combat, but the thought of coming back, as the undead, was truly horrifying.
“How about we try not fighting the next lot” He suggested. Everyone looked at him.
“Really, now you’re a spokesperson for peace and communication?” Havia scoffed, observing the axe he still held in his right hand.
“Hey, you know Mountain tribe warriors are not as blood thirsty as they are made out.” He turned away, a lame attempt at hiding the hurt he felt at being stereo typed.
Quink was quickly at his side, placing her small, soft hand on his arm before turning him back towards the other two.
“Havia, stop being a bitch! You know Utig fights because he’s good at it, not because he thirsts for it. It’s like me accusing you of trying to play politics, because we all know elves love politics.” She stood just before the barbarian, her black robes clinging to her small shape, like a tree protecting the mountain from the wind.
Havia laughed, and Antios cuffed her up the back of the head playfully.
“Yeah, sorry Utig, you’re right. It just caught me off guard. You know, sometimes I can’t stop my mouth from running on.” She nodded towards Utig and pointed her thumb towards the cave entrance.
“It does feel one sided, and easy for what, the fourth or fifth level. I’d say we’re having an easier push than we did with the goblins.” She began cleaning the crossbow bolts she had retrieved from two of the fallen kobolds.
“Now, if they had all been in the corridors, like other dungeons we’ve cleared. Camped in various chambers and tight spaces. Well, then we’d have had a proper challenge.” She put the bolts back in the quiver she’d fastened at her hip and loaded the crossbow.
“Yeah, maybe by spreading out into the caves the kobolds have spread themselves too thin?” Antios added.
“The whole ‘not being used for gods know how long’ has meant lots of the factions in this dungeon no longer behave the way they were intended. Dath did warn us of that.” He was sharpening his sword, the thick scaled hide of the kobolds, coupled with the sparse, but thick, armour they were using, had dulled the blade a touch.
“Well, yeah. Let’s not snip at each other in future ok.” Quink said as she watched the pyre, its flames crackling as they licked at the kobold corpses.
“We’re a party, and more importantly, we’re friends. Let’s never forget that.” She turned back to Havia, smiling warmly, although there was a glint to her eyes that warned the thief to lay off teasing her barbarian.
“Because if you forget it, I will forget it. And I know some particularly nasty spells.” Her smile widened, not reaching her eyes. Havia couldn’t help but grin as she held her hands up in front of herself.
“Ok, ok, you know your hot when your scary right? I’m part terrified and aroused. It’s all very confusing. They both laughed and Utig took the opportunity to step away from his protective partner and sidle up to Antios.
“You know, it’s going to get worse in those caves. They have obviously given up living in the corridors and have setup in the tunnels, probably dug them themselves.” He pointed to the edges of the cave entrance, a few blocks of masonry were still dotted around the chamber, the rest had probably been used to block up other corridors.
“They control the environment, which means they control the fight.” The barbarian pointed back to the pyre. “Look at the size of them. Get eight of those guys coming at you from all sides and even the most skilled fighter could be in trouble.” He held his axe out straight, levelling the double-edged head with the cave entrance.
“They will be watching us, and planning. It’s the difference between goblins and kobolds, goblins will swarm you, kobolds will move you to the middle of their forces. I’ve heard tales of big groups, experienced groups, going down to kobolds in some of the harder dungeons in the south. We should try a diplomatic approach.” He slowly lowered his axe, letting the head rest against his fur lined boots.
“Yeah, I know. So far, we’ve only met one that spoke at all, maybe we should hold this room, see if they come to us?” Utig nodded as he listened to Antios, eyes scanning the rest of the chamber as the fighter talked.
“It’s not a bad place to rest, only two entrances. We could camp in a corner and watch both, plenty of time to jump up should they attack.” Utig lay his hand on the fighter’s shoulder as he pointed around the room.
He was happy to follow Antios’s lead most of the time, but right now felt different. He had been a little too eager to jump in, like the enforced rest had made him reckless. They’d fought together long enough for Utig to know when even the leader needed a guiding hand.
“Ok. Solid plan.” Antios breathed in deep. “Thanks, Utig.” Slapping him on the shoulder he turned to face the others. Havia and Quink were giggling like children, the defensive moment forgotten in the shadow of some private joke.
“We’re setting up in that corner there.” He pointed to the corner Utig had suggested. “Let’s take split watch, two by two, get a couple of hours sleep in turn. We’ll see if they send something other than a soldier.” With that they threw down their bed rolls, as far away from the smoke of the pyre as they could get and prepared for a rest.
Antios got a few hours’ sleep, letting Utig and Quink take first watch. When they shook them awake, they had nothing to report, aside from the slight sounds of movement from the cave entrance, a sign they were being watched. They swapped and soon the two were fast asleep, curled up together on their bed rolls.
“You know, it makes me a bit jealous.” Antios said to Havia as they shared a drink from the water skin. She looked at him, then back at the two huddled together. Utig’s snores, deep and erratic, were entertaining for the first ten minutes or so, but soon became background noise.
“You soft shit. Do you think you’d be able to relax at all in a dungeon with someone you were that close to?” She smiled, stoppering the flask and tying it to her pack. He scanned the chamber, paying close attention to the cave entrance at the far side.
“Yeah, I’m not sure how either of them deals with that. And let’s be honest, Utig going berserk over Quink falling down a hole, that scared the shit out of me.” He reached inside his own pack, pulling out a loaf of hanicksh. Utig claimed it was a mountain treat, various berries and fruits baked into a loaf that could even be eaten when stale, if you had some water to hand. Luckily it was still fresh, baked the day before, and he tore off a large chunk before handing it to the thief.
“I love you guys, you’re family. Sometimes I just, I want a bit more, you know.” Havia, started gesticulating rudely with the loaf.
Antios grinned and they both laughed quietly, careful not to wake up the sleeping couple.
“Look, I get it. You will find that someone, or many someone’s. Personally, as a half elf, I think I’m still a bit young to be tied down to anyone. Maybe I just haven’t found the right woman? My standards are quite high.” She grinned, tearing her own piece of hanicksh and covering the remaining half of the loaf for Antios to put away.
As he was stowing the loaf back in his pack Antios couldn’t help but think of Jakol, and the date they had agreed to go on.
“What did you think of Jakol? The healer?” He asked coyly. Havia was his best friend, her opinion carried more weight than she knew.
As he looked up, he could see the thief grinning from ear to ear.
“I bloody knew it.” She crowed, and then quieted down as Utig snored loudly in response.
“I bloody knew it,” she all but whispered. “You two would make a great couple. He’s a great match for you, have you done anything about it? Or have you been all stoic and shit, like the dumbass you are?” She shuffled across the floor on her butt to get closer to him.
“Spill it, I want all the details.” She punched him on the arm, shaking her hand at the hardness of his leathers. Antios felt a wave of affection for the thief that caught him off guard. Despite growing up with a loving family, he felt closer to this chaotic half-elf than any of his siblings.
“We’re going to go for a drink when we get back.” He fiddled nervously with the hilt of his sword, watching as Havia nodded excitedly.
“Oh, well, well, well. You need any pointers, don’t ask me, I suck at relationships.” They both laughed again, relaxing and leaning against each other. It reminded him of the nights out they used to have when just getting to know each other.
It was then that he heard the deliberate tap of wood on stone. Out in the entrance to the cave system, someone was stood silently, watching. One of the slightly shorter, more colourfully attired kobolds. Staff in hand, standing proudly with the darkness of the cave behind it.
“You are invited to meet with Jiaunta.” It said, snapping out the words, as if wrapping its jaw around the words was difficult.
Antios stood and approached the figure, watching behind it for any sign of more kobold fighters.
“You have shown yourselves to be worthy fighters. Jiaunta wishes to talk an end to the death.” It tilted its wide, long head to one side, assessing Antios as he walked forward. Havia, waking the others quietly was keeping an eye on both of the chamber’s entrances.
“How do we know this isn’t a trap?” Antios asked once he was closer to the kobold. This was the first time he’d had the chance to examine the smaller kobolds up close, when not in combat.
“You do not. But I am here as,” the kobold paused, scratching its brow as it sought the right words.
“A hostage.” It proclaimed; a grey, taloned finger, raised in accomplishment. “I am an egg whisperer, valued among the tribe, you may take my staff.” It held out the staff, horizontally, it was easily as tall as the kobold, metal had been wrapped and beaten around one end. Antios reached for it slowly, it was badly weighted to the metal tipped end, but would pack a punch if you got caught with it around the head. Strange carvings were carved along the length of the wood, some deeper than others, it was possibly a magic focus.
“Are you a female kobold?” He asked, examining the staff further as the others finished packing the bed rolls away and joined them.
“We do not have female or male in our race. I can nurture eggs, think faster, move faster than bigger kobolds. I see more, I am more, though my stature is less.” The kobold seemed confused with the question.
“So, who lays the eggs?” Havia asked, curious despite the tense situation.
“We all have our seasons, our time in the nest. You may ask more questions as we take the path to Jiaunta.” The kobold turned and walked slowly back into the carved tunnels of the cave system. Antios looked at the others questioningly, passing the staff to Quink with a raised eyebrow. They all nodded, loosening weapons just in case, as they followed the kobold into the encroaching darkness.
“Quink, do you think you could light us up, I don’t want to use the torches if we can help it.” Antios asked, stepping from the cold light of the chamber into the shadowed depths. Quink gestured with one hand, the other resting against the glass orb tied to her belt. Muttering an incantation under her breath she harnessed her magic and orbs of soft green light floated out from her palm, positioning themselves around the group. They shed enough light to remove any shadow, but at the same time allowing them to see into the darkness beyond without too much light blindness, not unlike a shielded lamp.
“Have you tweaked that spell since the last time you cast it, this is great.” Havia commented, of course she had night vision so was less concerned than the others.
“Since I fell down that hole I’ve been playing with a couple of light spells, I have one that doesn’t need a focus, but it’s a bit too bright, needs work.” She beamed at the thief, pleased that someone was noticing her work. Utig patted her on the shoulder as he bought up the rear, she gestured and an orb split into two, one half moving to the rear to shed more light at the back.
“Thanks, dear.” He said, axe held before him as he turned to look for any tunnel offshoots that may be to their sides and rear.
It was a winding path, the carved tunnel soon gave way to natural caverns, the floors appeared to have been dug flat, making the walk easier. It wasn’t long before they started passing through large caverns where groups of armed kobold warriors stood guard before smaller tunnels leading away, nearby the sound of running water could be heard echoing throughout the network. Antios tapped their guide on the shoulder.
“How far until we meet this Jiaunta?” He asked, the kobold stopped and gestured back to the cavern they had just passed.
“That is first home, small, not Jiaunta’s home. We are about halfway there.” They said, sparing a suspicious glance at the orbs of light before carrying on.
“What is your name?” Antios asked as he quick stepped to walk beside them.
“My name, Kathik.” They said, gesturing from their chest with an upturned hand towards Antios.
“I give my name for you to use, as the youngest of the egg whisperers.” It seemed oddly ceremonial for dungeon dwellers, and Antios found himself imitating the gesture.
“My Name is Antios, I give my name for you to use.” He replied, watching as the kobold’s eyes widened in what he hoped was appreciation.
“You good talker, Jiaunta will like.” The sides of the kobolds wide jaw began to twitch, in what Antios suspected was a smile.
“They will convince you to end the death.” There was a strange clicking sound that accompanied the kobolds words, Antios suspected it was akin to laugher, or enjoyment.
“So, are all the smaller kobolds, like yourself, are they all egg whisperers?” He asked as they continued walking. The kobold looked thoughtful for a moment, walking in near silence as it pondered the question.
“Yes and no, most fulfil this duty as well as others.” Kathik stopped for a moment, finger poised at the base of its long jaw as it considered its reply.
“Yes. Most of the smaller kobolds, we are better suited to looking after eggs, running the tribe, keeping the larger ones busy.” They looked back over their shoulder, focusing for a moment on Quink and then down to its staff, which the spell caster was scrutinising as she walked. “Some of us are like that one, using magics.” It pointed its snout over to Havia. “We even have one like this one, that one warned us first that you had come. They fix and maintain the old traps, set new ones, good with hands, but not happy, I think. Iki spends more time in the corridors than any other.” The kobold seemed embarrassed by this last admission, as if talking about a wayward child. “They are not settled in the tribe, spend too much time in the old tunnels.”
Antios let the kobold settle into silence, feeling awkward, like he had touched a nerve somehow. They walked for a while, listening to the echo of their footfalls as they joined the sounds of activity seeping up from the various tunnels and rooms leading away from their route, steadfastly guarded by yet more armoured kobolds. The sheer number of them was impressive, in these tunnels, if they were to swarm like the goblins, the party would be over run in no time at all.
“We are here.” The kobold stopped by a small tunnel that led up and away from the main through fair.
“You go ahead, Jiaunta will talk to you of the death, and how to end it.” Kathik bowed to them as they stepped to the side and pointed up the tunnel.
Antios and the others ascended carefully, not far up it widened out into a larger cavern. A fire burned in the centre, its smoke being carried up to a crack in the ceiling, there was only one other exit, a small hole leading to what appeared to be a bedroom of sorts, reminding Antios more of a nest, with a pile of rags and reeds pressed into a circular form in the centre.
At the fire, robed and staring intently into the flames, an elderly kobold of diminutive stature was sipping form an earthen mug.
“It has been too long since adventurers have walked these ways, and our tribe has grown past what we were summoned for.” Its words were clear, eyes bright as it inspected each of them in turn.
“Please sit at my fire, share some tea. I am the tribe elder, Jiaunta is my name, I give it to you to use. Sit, sit.” Again, the sides of their wide, long mouth twitched in the way that Antios assumed was a smile as the kobold gestured around the fire, he bowed and sat cross legged near the elder, the others following his lead.
“My name is Antios.” He placed a hand on his chest before pointing at his comrades in turn. “These are my friends, Havia, Utig and Quink. Our names are yours to use.” Around the fire several of the dark clay mugs had been positioned to stay warm, a comforting scent of herbs wafted up from them. Quink waved her hand over the cup closest, waiting a moment in concentration before nodding to the others, no poison or sleeping draught was present in the tea.
“We will gladly end the death, although we seek the riches that were spread across the old corridors. We will gladly leave if we could retrieve some if not all of it.” Antios said, blowing the steam from his tea before taking a sip.
There was a moment as Jiaunta took in his words, then a yipping as the kobold began to laugh out loud.
“Oh, it is not the death which you cause, we wish to end. Although, it is no small comfort knowing you would choose a peaceful way to obtain the shiny which my tribe worked hard to secure.” The kobold pulled a large gold coin out of her robes as if to clarify what they were discussing.
“Perhaps we say the wrong word, death or dead? We will gladly relinquish our foraged gold if you are able to stop the dead from raiding our home.” The kobold reached behind her to grab a yellowed and aged human skull, the eyes alight with a dull red glow deep within its sockets, the jaw moving as if spewing silent curses.
“Below us a dark art is being used. It seeps into our home. You want treasure, we want peace. A simple exchange, yes?”