A rat in leather armor stood across from us on two legs, the only warm-blooded creature in the Ozo clan. She looked like a ratfolk version of Indiana Jones - ready for adventure.
"No, no, no. I work alone. Alone." The rat backed up slowly, grew smaller, looked toward the exit. Her leather jerkin fit loosely with a belt looped twice around her waist. It was weighed down with all manner of clanking metal devices and pouches.
"But now you won't have to, Zoey. They can be out in the cold with you," Mahda said.
"They're too large, too noisy. They'd see them coming from a mile away."
"The redheads are blind." I said, "They use those loud blares to see. It's echolocation."
"I know, I'm not stupid. And they're not completely blind, just mostly," Zoey adjusted a coil of rope that looped diagonally across her.
"They're also afraid of the stony ground and the stream," I said.
"Everyone knows that." She rolled her beady black eyes.
"Are they even edible? Is that what you trap in the forest?"
"See this." Zoey turned to Mahda, pointing at us. "I can't take stupid with me. I'm afraid they'd get me killed."
"So take them under your wing. Teach them. Please don't make me have to remind you."
"I ..." Zoey sighed. "I only do this for you."
"Thank you. I knew I could count on you," Mahda said.
"We survived a run in with a group of them before. We know what they're like," Estra said.
"Good for you. Follow me, and listen. Okay, listen," Zoey tapped her pointed ear.
Under Lan's watchful eyes, Mahda had given us a tour and answered questions.
Not lacking for space, the crumbling ruins of the bygone civilization were built as if for giants. Yet everyone crammed into a single chamber for a simple but important reason: heat. They were cold-blooded, and the central warmth brought the kobolds together.
In this chamber, an impressive bit of masonry stood in the center, serving both as a heater and a stove. A chimney went straight to the ceiling and then, I hoped, was funneled outside. A rocket stove mass heater was what they needed, but it was not my problem.
In concentric circles, the kobolds clustered around the heater like turtles on a log. The clan hierarchy was clear: the furthest from the heater, was lowest in the clan. While the inner most circle was reserved for the chieftess and her officers, the juveniles and hatchlings got pushed out to fringe, where they clumped up like balls of earthworms in a can.
Cold and lethargic, the ones on the outer edges couldn't do much through the winter but hibernate, barely eating anything. The rest couldn't go far before having to return to warm up. Nonetheless, a full crew rotated to guard and maintain their base.
A party invitation window jumped into my view.
[Zoey has invited you to a party. YES / NO.]
I selected yes, and a health / mana bar popped up over Zoey. None appeared over Estra.
"What's your strength? how much can you carry?" Zoey asked.
I checked my status screen. "193 strength, 48kg."
"Okay, that should work nicely. Follow me closely. We move, move, move. Stop, Okay? We listen, listen, move again. Repeat. Okay?" she said with irritation in her voice. “Sirens close? Stop, hold still, listen. Got it?”
“You might have to repeat it again for Kevin.” Estra grinned, while Zoey ignored her.
She didn't waste any time, she gave us several coils of rope, and off we went. Despite initial coldness, she explained the situation candidly.
Wood was a precious resource, and the only place to get more was in the woods outside. Gathering downed branches was a serious undertaking, and not because of the winter cold, but every bit of sound could summon a death squad of redheads.
They ignored heavy branches, and instead took anything small enough to be carried back without cutting. Due to the noise, chopping or sawing was suicide. While warmer seasons allowed kobolds to go outside and collect wood, the warmth presented its own danger: similar to kobolds, the redheads increased their activity. Not a season went by without whole crews simply vanishing. And it wasn't just redheads to fear. Though Zoey didn't say what.
Us and her were the only warm-bloods. Which meant we could venture out into the cold outdoor air. Besides trapping and hunting, she collected wood in the winter when nobody else could, selling it for extra coin at the main market.
Grumbling all the way, Zoey led down the tunnel created by the stream. She moved around with caution like a rat around a new cat. I peeked out into the cold air, -- it was overcast, with a chance of death.
"Are we sure about this?" I asked.
"I don't know if I trust her. She could be leading us into a trap," Estra whispered.
"I think she's just afraid of us."
We descended by the side of a short waterfall, out to an unfamiliar area, and into the mega-forest. The area nearest the mountain was picked clean of anything that would burn.
"We'll check the traps first." Zoey said.
Two paths diverged in a wood, and we took neither -- both were traveled by centipedes. Nope, we kept straight down the winding stream. The sound of the running water helped mask our steps, and if it went south, she'd hide in one of the many dugouts she made in the banks, while we were suppose to lay flat in the water, like some fish.
Zoey explained that the redheads patrolled their paths religiously, and had learned the times and routes they took throughout the day. She scurried up on top of our back to look out over our heads. "Is a great view from up here."
We didn't even get to a single trap. With a muffled thump, something heavy landed behind us, turning to check we got pummeled to the ground by a hairy beast. Estra screeched in alarm. It raked our chest with its claws. I managed to kick it off and stand.
Across from us, squatted a large ape like creature, snarling soundlessly.
[Race: [t1] Pongor; Male]
Zoey was nowhere in sight. It sprang forward. Estra blasted it with fire down the middle, but it didn't slow its momentum. Slamming hard, its clawed fingers dug into our arms and chest. It bit down into our shoulder. We rolled and grappled, trying to keep its sharp teeth from reaching our throats. We were evenly matched for size and strength.
I elbowed it in the face, and rolled to stand. It lunged again, knocking us down to the ground. More fire erupted, but it wouldn't stop. It punched me in the face, I bit into its hand, putting my tusks to use.
A dull thwack, and it slumped down on top of us with all its weight, motionless. I rolled the heavy body off and sat up. Stench of burned hair hung in the air, Estra and I were panting for air, heart racing wild. Zoey stood with a blackjack in hand, eyes wide hushing us to silence with a finger to her mouth.
"Thanks," I whispered. We lowered to the ground and listened intently. I checked our health, 830 / 2040 and half a dozen bleeding effects. After a minute she put away the blackjack and checked the creature.
"Good," she whispered, clapping her hands soundlessly. She motioned for the rope we had, and went to bind the creature's arms and legs.
I whispered to Estra while Zoey was preoccupied, "Heal?"
She shook her head, "Later."
Zoey gagged its mouth so it wouldn't make a sound.
"What are you doing?" I asked Zoey in a hushed voice.
"We bring it back with us." Zoey said.
"Alive?" Estra and I looked at each other with confused expressions.
She nodded back enthusiastically. I didn't want to argue, I was hungry enough to eat this Chewbaca sushi style.
Bringing it back, however, was no small ordeal. The creature came awake as we exited the forest. It wiggled and convulsed trying to free itself.
"Can you just club it again?" I asked Zoey.
She shook her head. "I don't want to chance killing it."
"Aren't we gonna eat it?" I never had ape meat before, or whatever Pongor was, but I was happy to try.
"No, you'll see."
"What do we eat then?"
"Don't worry, we'll have a feast tonight."
The words were like magic. I got back to dragging the squirming ape with increased vigor. It took a few breaks and another hour to reach a section of the settlement we didn't tour: the prison.
Along the way, our lively haul attracted the attention of every kobold. Zoey was leaping for joy, bouncing from foot to foot around the creature. Even Mahda came over to see.
"Do you understand what's going on?" I asked Estra.
"Maybe they're going to ransom for its release?" Estra said with a smirk, I chuckled.
They laid the creature face down in the prison cell and chained it firmly to the floor.
"Wow, they sure take security seriously," I said.
Then they sprayed it down with a bucket of water, and spread what looked like black grime all over its body, from head to toe.
"What are they-"
It managed to spit out the gag, and shouted, "No! Please!"
"Bloody hell, it talks!" The revelation phased absolutely nobody, Estra included.
They stuck the gag firmly and doubled it over with more rope. What came next was more shocking than a talking ape. The black grime glowed with purple dots, the dots grew brighter, bulged out like blisters, rose like dough on a warming plate. In seconds the Pongor body blossomed into a garden of purple mushrooms.
Estra and I watched the horror show with our mouths open. The kobolds hooted in excitement. The purple mass continued growing and growing, the kobolds backed out of the cell, and before long the entire space was engulfed with fungus that fanned out of the cell door. I felt sick.