The millipede clattered to the cavern floor, the sound of its chitinous bulk slamming into stone echoing throughout the otherwise silent cave. It reared back, a dozen or so of its armored segments raising off of the ground, its body curling back into an S as it prepared to strike.
For a brief second, Samazzar was frozen, a mouse staring down a swooping owl.
The millipede’s mandibles spread wide, each the size of his arm and sharper than any knife Sam had ever seen. Acrid toxins dripped from its open mouth, fizzing as they pitted the rough stone of the cave’s floor.
He yelped, rat stick forgotten as it clattered to the rocky floor. Sam turned and dug all four of his claws into the ground. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw a cloud of cold, bad air spray from the monster’s jaws.
His claws scraped on stone, drawing sparks as he tore away from the creature. Whatever the gas it spit out was, it narrowly missed him, instead coating the rats in the pit. A chill went down Sam’s spine as the roiling red and orange forms of the cave rats trying to escape the trap froze and fell limp the moment the substance touched them.
The giant bug screeched its displeasure at Sam’s escape, a wailing dirge of metal on metal that caused the rocks around him to dance. The millipede flopped to the cavern floor, slamming its upper body onto the ground in order to give chase.
Sam squealed in distress, the force of the blow buffeting him off of his feet. Quickly, he rolled back over onto all fours and began running once more, adrenaline spiking his heart into a rapid stutter.
Behind him, the sound of hundreds of hundreds of spiked legs clacking off of the stone floor spurred him onward. Samazzar had never been the fastest kobold in his litter, but in that moment of sheer terror, he was sure that he could have outrun anyone in the creche.
His breath rasped in his throat as the ground faded away beneath him. All that mattered was the slap of his claws against the rock and the foul breath of the giant millipede at his back.
Fear consumed every fiber of Sam’s being. Fear of stumbling. Fear of running just one step too slow. Fear of dying here and now, leaving so much left undone.
Anxiety closed in on him, narrowing his thoughts. The world became a tunnel, limiting Samizzar’s consciousness to immediate survival.
Put your foot here or risk slipping in gravel. Pivot and twist now or you might run into a rocky high outcropping. He ducked, scrambled, and wove his way through the darkness with the agility of a startled cat, doing his best to outrun the enraged monster.
After about forty seconds of sprinting, Sam calmed down enough to process the situation. The millipede wasn’t gaining on him, but at the same time there was roughly zero chance that he’d be able to lose it in the empty caves. Worse still, from the tightening of his chest and the way Sam had to struggle to pull down breath, there was no way he’d outlast it.
Already his lungs and limbs burned. Deep down, he knew that the only thing keeping him ahead of the rampaging bug was adrenaline. As soon as he let up, it was all over.
Sam didn’t know if the millipede would spray him with whatever it used on the rats, slash him with its mandibles, or just puncture him with one of its hundred legs. The slightest misstep would immediately doom him to a miserable fate.
Deep in his tiny heart, an ember of fury ignited over his helplessness. This wasn’t a fight he could win. Even armed with a proper weapon like one of the tribe’s guards, he wouldn’t have any way to pierce the monster’s thick, segmented chitin.
Never again. He might be small, but Sam was not prey. One day, he’d be large enough to snap up a monster like the millipede in his talons, but a rebellious voice deep inside of him seethed in frustration. He didn’t want to wait for some day.
His mood brightened slightly as an idea sprang to mind. Sam shifted course toward the campsite, and the crevice that fed water into it. The millipede might be bigger and stronger than him, but nothing could crawl and squirm through a narrow place like a desperate kobold.
“Takkla! He shouted into between heavy, gasping breaths. “Dussok!”
He missed a step, the distraction from shouting throwing his gait off slightly. The ravenous millipede grew closer, its legs fracturing and chipping the stone as it lunged forward, trying to catch Samizzar in its mandibles before he recovered completely.
“Being chased,” his lungs felt almost like they did when Crone Tazzaera taught him about good air. “Get into the tunnel with the stream!”
Flecks of light appeared at the corners of his vision. He hoped that his warning was enough. He didn’t have enough breath to try again.
Sam rounded the corner, just in time to see Dussok pushing Takkla into the hole in the cavern wall, the embers of the fire still burning a dull orange. The big kobold turned back to him, opening his muzzle to ask a question.
“GO!” Sam shouted, pushing off of the ground so that he was only running on his hind legs. Frantically, he waved his hand at Dussok. “Go now, no time!”
Dussok’s eyes widened as the millipede rounded the corner and lunged into the cave after Sam. Quickly, his littermate shoved Takkla into the tunnel, drawing a chirp of protest, barely audible over the echoing clatter of the rampaging monster.
Sam dove into the shaft right after Dussok, ducking his head to avoid being hit by a swing of his tail. Quickly they crawled away from the millipede, the water from the tiny stream splashing off of the scales on their hands and knees.
Just as they stopped to take a breath, an enraged screech rang out behind them. Sam blanched. Somehow the millipede was forcing its body into the crack after them. The compressed space slowed it, even on their hands and knees, the three kobolds were faster than it, but the safety of the tunnel was illusory.
“Keep moving,” he hissed, pushing against Dussok’s haunch with his claw. “It’s in here with us.”
“Where do we go?” Takkla asked in a panic as she resumed crawling. “I can’t see anything!”
“What in the hells is that thing little dragon?” Dussok’s voice almost overlapped with Takkla. “You went out to check the traps and ended up coming back with some sort of gigantic armored snake! What in the gods’ names is going on?”
Sam winced at the chaos of his siblings' confused conversation. They needed to focus on escape, not debate.
“Just keep going Takkla,” Sam responded, glancing worriedly over his shoulder at the mass of armor and teeth squirming through the tunnel after them. “There’s only one way forward and the water has to come from somewhere.”
“I’m just as lost as you Dussok,” he continued, “there were rats in my trap, but that millipede was waiting for me. It dropped from the ceiling onto me when I went to collect them. It’s been chasing me ever since.”
“Did you say millipede,” Sam could almost hear Dussok’s jaw clench. “As in ‘tunnel millipede,’ the scourge of the deep caves.”
“Y-yes?” Sam answered. “I’m pretty sure it was a millipede? It was big, had a lot of legs and had mandibles the size of my arm?”
“Oh good,” Dussok muttered angrily. “It’s just helpful to know that I’m dead before it even happens. I just hope it knocks us out with its spit before it eats us alive. Our demise will be a lot less painful that way.”
“So you know about them?” Sam asked. “Good! That means you know its weaknesses! With your help we’ll be able to fight back and defeat it. There are three of us and one of it. I’m sure that if we work together, we’ll be able to bring it down somehow.”
For a second, there was no response. Just the splashing of the stream as they crawled through the tunnel, interrupted occasionally by an angry bellow from the millipede behind them. Sam noted that the passage was heading downward, the former trickle of a stream deepening until it was almost at their chests.
“It doesn’t have any weakness little dragon,” Dussok sighed. “We might be able to escape it, but they’re known to be pretty tenacious. They generally treat anything hunting or scavenging in their territory as a threat, and they try to eliminate threats.”
They lapsed into silence once more. Samazzar gritted his jaw. This is what it meant to be a kobold. Trapped and helpless in a dark cave while a monster they couldn’t hope to beat pursued them incessantly.
Combat would speed their death, and in all likelihood running would only delay the inevitable. Maybe they could find a spot to hide from the millipede, but even then, it could probably outwait them.
He squinted his eyes in the darkness. It wasn’t fair. Anger kindled in his scrawny chest as Samazzar fumed. Even goblins had a fighting chance against most things, but kobolds, the literal blood of the dragons that ruled the skies, were too small and weak. Forever prey, and never the predator.
Even his greatest accomplishments were those of a scavenger. Trapping cave rats, some of the weakest animals individually in the deep tunnels, Sam relied upon surprise and guile. Really, the only living beings he’d defeated with his own two claws were the stalk grubs he used as bait.
One day, he’d be bigger than the millipede. One day, it’d be him chasing his enemies into dead ends while they waited for their inevitable end.
He WOULD survive this. He might not have his awakened bloodline gifts, and even with them he wouldn’t be able to stand and fight against the monster, but if he had to make it through this encounter like a kobold rather than a dragon, then so be it.
The fire burning in his chest washed through his body, revitalizing him. If all he had was guile, his small size, and agility, that’s what he’d use. Dussok might have given up already, but there had to be some way to drive off the millipede before it killed them all.
Sam cocked his head to the side. Of course, there was more to him than cunning and the ability to fit into small places. He might not have his bloodline gifts yet, but Crone Tazzaera had spent a lot of time drilling the secrets of magic into him, and one of her most important warnings about the deep caves repeated itself in his head.
He might only be able to see good air but according to the Crone, there were plenty of pockets of bad air. It should only be a matter of turning on both of his magical visions at once. Air transferred heat differently from stone, and with a little focus he should be able to cross reference the two different modes of sight. Theoretically a pocket of bad air would show up on his heat vision, but not when he was magically seeking good air.
A moment later, he smiled, yellow teeth flashing in the darkness. Kobolds might not be able to stand and fight, but he’d worked hard for his rats. The millipede was so much more powerful than him that quantifying the difference was meaningless, but even the mighty needed to breathe.
“Takkla,” he shouted, trying to catch the whimpering kobold’s attention. “Turn left as soon as you can, there will be an upward sloping tunnel and the path will widen so that we can stand.”
“I don’t know little dragon,” Dussok rumbled. “I don’t like being trapped in this tunnel, but if we move out into the open the millipede will just run us down. It’ll be over in seconds.”
“The air is tainted in that tunnel,” Sam began excitedly, the plan spilling out as rapidly as he could form the words. “If we can lure the millipede into it, it will suffocate and die. Then we can collect the rats and return to the tribe.”
“I don’t want to breathe poison,” Takkla whined. “Please try to come up with a plan that doesn’t involve us dying before the monsters kill us.”
“I agree with Takkla,” Dussok replied thoughtfully. “I would prefer a plan that doesn’t involve us committing suicide in order to kill the millipede. As satisfying as triumphing over it would be, it’s meaningless if we’re dead.”
“No, no!” Sam continued hurriedly. “The bad air is heavy and there’s a small crevice halfway up the wall. We’re good at climbing walls! We just need to hold our breath while we climb, and then we can hide in there. We’ll be able to breathe fine, but the bad air will kill the millipede if it waits for us. If it runs away? That’s great too. Either way, we’ll survive!”
“Neither Takkla and I can see in the dark,” Dussok responded, resignation weighing heavily on his voice. “Still, climbing a wall in the dark seems better than waiting for the millipede. At least we have a fighting chance.”
“That’s the spirit Dussok,” Sam said cheerfully. “Just you watch, it’ll all work out!” The other kobold just grunted, but Samazzar didn’t let his dour demeanor dampen his spirits.
A minute later, the three of them were scurrying up a tunnel, crouched but on their feet once more. The tunnel was mercifully dry as the upward slope left the streambed behind. Sam’s thoughts were interrupted by another hissing scream from the millipede. It was still behind them, splashing and crawling its way toward their side channel.
They reached the apex of the tunnel only to slow slightly as faint blue bioluminescence lit the darkness. Sam tapped both of his companions on their shoulders to get their attention.
“The entire cavern is toxic,” he said the words urgently, hoping that Takkla was paying attention to his warning. “Take a deep breath now, and don’t inhale until you’re a little over twice Dussok’s height up the wall. We need to make it to the crack on the far left wall. It should be a little over three times Dussok’s height.”
“Doable if hard,” Dussok nodded slowly while squinting to make out details in the thin blue light.
“Takkla?” Sam asked dubiously.
“Sure,” She replied, waving a claw absently. “I’ll be fine. I just need another nap soon. All of this running has tired me out.”
The tunnel shook as the millipede threw itself into it, picking up speed now that it could use its legs properly. Sam looked at Takkla and pursed his lips before shrugging. There wasn’t any more time to explain the situation, what would be would be.
“Let’s do it then,” he nodded to the two of them. “Good luck.”
Sam took a deep gasp of breath, and began sprinting. The bioluminescence intensified as he ran, emanating from great puddles full of light blue algae. He didn’t pay them any mind. There really wasn’t any time to pay attention to anything not related to the climb.
He hit the wall at a full blown run, his breath warm and heavy in his lungs. Claws scrabbled for handholds while the millipede crested the apex of the tunnel. It bellowed before beginning its headlong descent into the dimly lit chamber.
His chest burned and his vision narrowed. Sam ached. He wanted nothing more than to expel the stale air clogging his lungs and breathe in, but he restrained himself. He was almost to the boundary where the bad air transitioned into good.
The magical knowledge of the good air taunted him. Sweet and refreshing, just out of reach. His hand grabbed onto a rock jutting slightly out of the wall, claws digging into the stone. Sam pulled himself up, his other hand searching for a crack to slip his fingers into.
Below him, the millipede stormed into the cave. For a moment, it paused as if surprised by the light, then it turned to where the kobolds hung precariously on the wall. Letting out a chittering hiss that rattled Sam against the cliff face, it charged toward him once again.
He pulled himself up further, gasping for breath the second he was safely above the bad air. Still, he didn’t let himself pause. He was well within the millipede’s reach if it were to rear up and attack.
His left foot missed a clawhold, kicking wildly as his arms burned from making up the difference. Grunting, Sam pulled himself up anyway, kicking off with his right foot to lift his body high enough for his left to find a new spot.
The millipede was almost below him. He didn’t have the time to look, but Sam could feel its heat as it wove between the glowing puddles.
Then, Dussok’s huge claw reached down and grabbed Sam’s wrist. The big kobold pulled him up into the relative safety of the crack in the wall. Reaching out with his free claw, Sam pulled himself inside.
Dussok moved deeper into the crack, making room for Sam to crawl inside. He sighed in relief as his magical vision made out Takkla’s heat behind Dussok. It was rather embarrassing that a layabout like Takkla had beat him so thoroughly at climbing, but more than anything Sam was just glad that she was safe.
The millipede slammed into the opening. Screeching in incoherent rage as the tiny channel denied it.
The three kobolds huddled together in the dark as it rammed its body into the entrance. Twice. Three times. It paused, and then a cool liquid sprayed all over the entrance, not quite making it to the deeper recesses where they hid.
Takkla began shaking. Without saying anything, Dussok put his huge claw on her shoulder and pulled her closer to him. Samazzar glanced at them but said nothing. His attention was occupied by heat coming from the millipede.
It didn’t leave, content to wait for the kobolds to starve or flee their prison, blissfully unaware of the toxic fumes it was inhaling.
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Bio: I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked, dragging themselves through the streets at dawn looking for an angry fix of machine translated light novels, burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of the night