The slaves marched in an orderly double line through the tunnels. Viran took the lead while carrying a stone spear in one hand and a chitin black knife in the other, while Red stayed more towards the middle of the pack. There were about 20 people in the hunting party, all armed with some kind of improvised weapon. Five of them carried torches, making the space around them fairly well illuminated. Two of them had the wrapped bodies of the slaves that had died earlier in the day. The bait.
All in all, Viran had managed to beat some discipline into the group of slaves, and they carried themselves with some confidence, even though their clothing and equipment left a lot to be desired. This wasn't the first time they had done this, and while in the past they had to fear and avoid those monstrous insects at all costs, under their new leader's guidance and great strength they could now kill them and get another source of food.
This was why some of them were unhappy when they heard they would be taking a child to hunt with them.
"Don't know what he's thinking." Towards the back, Red recognized Gruff's voice speaking while he carried one of the two wrapped bodies. Even though the man tried to speak in hushed tones, it was still loud enough for those around him to hear. "Kid's just gonna get in the way and not help with anything, and we have to share our meat with him?" He scoffed, this time not even attempting to hide it. "Not fair I tell you. If the little shit gets in danger I'm not helping him no matter what Viran tells me."
"Shut up..." Came a response from someone else beside him. "Do you want him to hear us and tell the bossman?"
"Hmph, like I care..." Even though Gruff said that he didn't continue the conversation.
None of the other slaves berated him for his complaints though. Red knew they also thought the same way even though most of them were not brave enough to speak up about it in Viran's presence. He could see the gazes they threw at him and how they spoke about anything to him. They did this in the past too because of Red's seemingly privileged treatment given by Viran, but now that the boy was about to take a share of their meat down here their distaste for him became all the more palpable. He had no doubt some of them wouldn't mind killing him off when their boss wasn't around just to sate their anger. They tried that before too, but Red was too good at hiding for them to catch him.
Every slave knew about how important meat was down here, even that which came from insects. It was essential to any healthy diet if they wanted to keep themselves fit enough to survive another day. The guards up top rarely exchange for any kind of food that wasn't bread, and that by itself was rarely enough. Before the old soldier arrived they had to steal what they had from each other or scavenge the nooks and crannies of the cave for the rare edible mushroom, but since Viran came around and proved he could hunt down and kill the monsters that dwelled further in the mines, all the slaves were extremely excited to get their share of meat too.
This became a sacred activity for them, and even though it wasn't uncommon for one or two of them to die every other hunt, all of them were more than willing to put their lives on the line for the chance at a full stomach.
Of course, what they were hunting down wasn't just any normal animal. It was these giant insects bigger than the average human man that lived deeper in the tunnels. Generally, they didn't stay near the surface like the slaves, but it wasn't unheard of for a few of them to make their way up in search of food, and these people, who wouldn't even be able to fight back in their best condition, made for easy prey.
This was also why Viran started using the bodies of dead slaves as bait. In the past, one of the reasons why these beasts got near their dwelling so often was because people would simply leave dead bodies near places where they hung around, and these insects who relied a lot on their smell to interact with the environment around them could detect the scent of blood blown by the wind down the cave tunnels from very far away. By using the corpses of these unfortunate slaves as bait, Viran was both getting rid of a monster attractor and also getting insect meat for him and his subordinates to eat. He got a fair bigger share than everyone else, of course, but none of them dared to complain after they saw him fight.
"Should be getting near the clearing." Viran's voice came from up ahead. "We'll set up the bait and then kill our torches, after that set up positions behind cover and stop fucking yapping your mouths."
All the slaves nodded their heads as they continued to walk. Red himself didn't know what he was supposed to do here, Viran had neglected to explain anything to him, so he thought he would just hang off to the side and watch as the other slaves worked. Feeling the knife hidden in his trousers by the side of his waist, the boy couldn't help but feel somewhat excited. All he had done for his entire life down in these caves was avoid combat due to how small and weak he was compared to the other slaves, but now that he had started opening his spirit veins he could feel his body becoming more durable and stronger as he advanced, the progress slow but certainly there. Red was quite certain that this wasn't enough to fight against someone like Gruff, who could still easily twist his neck with one hand, but the boy was confident the difference between them was steadily getting smaller.
Of course, he still didn't let his guard down. Viran had never taught him anything about combat in the past and Red doubted he had invited him to this hunting party because of the goodness of his heart. Even now he was somewhat worried about what would happen when the confrontation with the monsters went down. Perhaps Viran would use him as additional bait? It didn't seem like his style, not after giving the boy his knife. He usually didn't trick people when he wanted to kill them. Still, Red would be foolish to not suspect the old soldier to some extent.
All kinds of thoughts ran through his mind as the group continued to walk for half an hour longer in the twisting tunnels before the passage started to suddenly widen into an opening ahead of them. Red guessed this was where they would be doing the hunting. The space was very wide, even more than their gathering area near the surface. The ceiling was easily about 5 meters high and the room opened into a wide circular shape that was 50 plus meters across. A very large space in these caves, but what caught his attention was located towards the back of the opening.
A small pond was formed against the wall, the clear water reflecting the light from the torches, signs of dripping water decorating the rock behind it. Pure water. Generally what they got to drink was gathered by them with pots from the dripping water from the ceiling, but it was just barely enough for the slaves to survive. These kinds of ponds were rare down here, much more one this size. Red unconsciously swallowed, not noticing how dry his mouth was until now. This hadn't been a short walk, after all
He wasn't the only one who thought so. Many slaves looked towards Viran as they spread around the opening's entrance, waiting for permission to walk forward and approached the pond.
"Everyone will have their turn." Viran looked towards a few people as he spoke, more specifically the ones carrying ropes and the human bait. "You guys help me set up the bait, the rest of you can go drink." He said, nodding his head towards Red too.
With that, the boy was somewhat relieved. At least he could cross off being used as live bait for giant insects off the list. Many other slaves had rushed past him though, eager to be the first to drink from the pond, so Red decided to hang back until they were mostly done, wisely staying out of their way.
Taking the time to look around the room, he also noticed two additional passages that lead to this opening other than the one they had come from, these ones leading down and deeper into the caves. He supposed this was where the insects would be coming from. Perhaps they frequented this place to drink too, but right now Red could not see any signs of them.
Around the walls of the opening too, he could notice faint green glows. Those were moonstones, embedded in the rock surface, giving off some illumination but not nearly enough to see without the torches. No one had gathered them yet, not to mention that they would need to have some sort of pickaxe to pry them from the wall, something none of them brought down here.
Red was always fascinated by the thought of these stones. Perhaps the most interesting thing about them is that not only were they abundant down here, but they also seemed to grow out of nowhere in the cave walls. If you collected the moonstone from a certain vein and then waited for several weeks and came back, you could notice small green spots at the same place, regrowing the moonstone that had been extracted around the vein. It was a weird and unnatural phenomenon but at the very least it made it so the slaves didn't have to head further down the cave to the monsters' lairs to gather more of this stone for survival.
Red himself had his own secret gathering spots. Although he didn't have any equipment to mine these stones in huge chunks, he was still able to grind them down into small pieces with some sharp rocks, which yielded him a good amount of moonstone to exchange for food.
While he waited for his own turn to drink, his gaze wandered to the ceiling, where he saw a few more of the weak green spots of light in an area that wasn't well lit by the torches. They truly did seem to grow everywhere in this cave. Suddenly, a large section of the green light disappeared for a brief second, as if something had passed over it and blocked the light. A moving shadow. Red's eyes narrowed.
"There's something ther-" His voice had barely come out before deafening screams drowned it out.
Looking down, the boy saw it. A man had his torso pierced by a huge set of insect jaws, bigger than his own head, as he was dragged into the air by a giant insect. Red could only see part of its body, segmented in many parts all with their own set of legs, covered by a pitch-black carapace, and its head in which a meter-long pair of antennas waved around its environment, sensing all the prey that had gathered for it.
"Help me!" The man who had been caught by the creature's jaws screamed, still alive and struggling against the grip.
This was the last coherent thing that Red heard before screams started to erupt all around him.