Of all the things Hump had expected to find in the dungeon, an essence grove wasn’t one of them. They were rare, so rare that even his master had only ever seen one. And just as rare as they were, they were also dangerous.
Calling it a chamber didn’t convey the magnitude of the place. It was a cavern, more enormous than anything Hump had seen, and it was alive. Blue grass lit the ground, shimmering with essence as if swept by an invisible wind. Flowers were everywhere: growing out of the vines, the trees, the grass; in pale, sickly tones, like a polluted forgery of the world above.
Bulbous trees sprung up all around, the bark bulging at the centre of their trunks like some grotesque tumour. Their roots were thick sprouting tendrils that drove into the ground, pulsating dimly with the blue light of essence. Tiny fungi grew upon them, with caps the size of a thumb, and the underside lined with tendrils that dangled out below and shone with a radiant blue. The canopy was made up of spindly, crooked branches sprouted, with drooping red leaves like day old blood. There was fruit amongst them, shining in sickly yellows and reds, lit from within by a faint glow. The skin appeared bloated and blistered, as if it could barely contain the sickness held within, ready to burst at the slightest touch.
The air was hot and humid, pervaded by the sickly-sweet scent of overripe fruit and decay. The trees made it hard to see beyond a few paces in any direction, and spidery vines rained down from the cavern roof and tree branches, covered in drooping purple leaves and flowers.
“What is this place?” Bud asked, reaching out to touch one of the flower petals on a vine that dangled over the end of the tunnel.
“Stop!” Hump snapped. “Don’t poke the flower. Anything that looks like that is definitely poisonous.”
“It’s poisonous?” Bud said indifferently. He didn’t stop reaching for it. “But it looks so beautiful.”
Hump frowned. “Bud, you need to get back.”
“It’s fine…” Bud mumbled. He wasn’t listening.
Hump hurried forward, but Vamir beat him to it. He appeared beside Bud in a rush, grabbing him by the arm and jerked him back, practically throwing him to the ground.
Bud shook him off furiously and rose ready for a fight, towering over the smaller man. “What are you doing?” he growled down into Vamir’s face.
Vamir met his eyes for a moment, then, fast as a flash, he slapped Bud across the cheek, sending him stumbling.
“Vamir,” Bud growled again, glaring at him. His hand was on the grip of his sword. “Why did you…” He stopped, looked back at the flower and paused, face furrowed. “Something isn’t right with me.”
“Well that’s an understatement,” Vamir said. “Unfortunately, I can’t fix most of that with just a slap. Are you feeling better?”
Bud nodded, rubbing his cheek tenderly where Vamir had struck. “What happened?”
Vamir pointed at the tunnel wall where a vine trailed down the stone discreetly. “You brushed that on your way past. It looks like it induced some sort of craving.”
“I wanted more,” Bud said. Suddenly he grimaced and spat on the ground. “Gods, it’s like honey, only disgusting.” He brought up his water flask and rinsed out his mouth, then spat again. “Blagh. Don’t touch the poisonous looking vines—note taken. Thanks, Vamir.”
“No need to thank me,” Vamir said. “I’ll slap you any time.” He walked ahead of them and crouched at the end of the tunnel, peering left and right. “Hump, do you have anything that would help with all the poison? I don’t see us getting through here without touching anything.”
“Nothing I’d bet our lives on,” Hump said. “I have an antidote for common poisons, but it’s not designed for something like this.”
Vamir sighed. “Plan B then. We’ll chop our way through.”
“You really want to go in there?” Celaine asked.
Vamir glanced back. “Want is the wrong word. There’s only one reason a place like this would exist here.”
Hump sighed. “Because we’re getting closer to the dungeon core. This probably leads to the inner chambers.”
Vamir nodded. “I bet the kobolds eat this crap. And where food grows, it’s likely stored nearby too. That’s where they will be holding the villagers.”
“And just how is there a forest underground?” Bud asked.
“It’s an essence grove,” Hump said, peering out into the strangely coloured world, as if it were the garden of some mad god. “Everything here survives off the dungeon’s essence. If we had the gear to harvest it, an alchemist would pay good money for some of this. They could probably replicate whatever it was that was affecting you.”
Bud grimaced. “Nasty stuff.”
Hump nodded. “I don’t like it, but Vamir’s probably right. If the villagers are going to be anywhere it’s somewhere in here.”
“I’m glad we have a wise old wizard with us to confirm I’m right,” Vamir said, smirking.
“Brilliant,” Hump grumbled. “Let’s just hope we don’t get brutally murdered by any bloody plants along the way.”
Vamir waved a hand at him. “Oh relax. Just don’t touch anything and you’ll be fine. And don’t let any insects touch you either. I don’t want to have to chop off an arm or anything like that.”
Hump thought hard. He didn’t want to know what kind of insect would require amputating an arm. At the same time, his survival instinct made him feel obliged to know. “Why would you have to chop off my arm?” Hump asked dryly.
“Stop the poison spreading, obviously,” Vamir said. “And trust me, you’ll want that. These things are full of nasties that’ll dissolve you from the inside out. Though it varies from place to place. You never know, we might get lucky.”
Hump felt sick. Like I ever get lucky… There was a distant thunder, and the tunnels rumbled with the sound of a horn. It was time. Suddenly he felt even more sick.
“Right, enough chatter,” Vamir said. “Let’s get a move on.”
“How do you plan to do that?” Hump asked, eyeing the vines nervously.
Vamir smiled and held up a hand. Suddenly, essence flared within them. The skin grew red, as if he’d been badly burnt, and then red scales burst from beneath his skin. “Helps to have a good pair of gloves.”
Hump tilted his head for a better look. “Is that Scaled Skin?” he asked, frowning. He’d never seen the spell so vibrant.
“Something like that,” Vamir said. He drew his sword and led the way into the grove, cutting through vines and foliage with his sword as easily as if it were wheat, clearing a safe path through the poisonous and man-eating plants.
They walked slowly through the grove, conscious that a single stumble could spell an agonising death. Keeping the wall on their left, they never strayed far enough from it that they couldn’t find their way back. Hump was fairly sure that at least this way they wouldn’t get lost.
Time passed slowly in the grove. Hump drew up his cloak to cover his nose, which helped with the worst of the smell, but the stench of rot and decay was nauseating. It must have been half an hour by the time he judged they had reached the halfway point, almost a mile of underground woodland.
“Kelisia’s fire, I hate spiders,” Bud growled, staring up at a particularly large web. The spider was as big as a hand. It had a thin body and spindly legs, all covered in bright yellow rings.
“They’re probably not particularly fond of you either,” Celaine said. She walked with her bow in hand, an arrow nocked and ready.
“Yeah, well I don’t bite.”
“You know,” Hump said, “there are people that eat spiders.”
They both looked at him.
“You must be joking,” Bud said.
Hump shook his head. “It says so in my book. One of my predecessors found a village in a country far to the south called Hersima, where they keep spiders in their huts and breed them. The spiders dig burrows in their homes and live inside, while the villagers feed them food scraps and use them to keep away rats. Crazy thing is they grow as big as piglets.”
Bud scrunched his face and looked a shade paler. “That’s disgusting.”
“Oh yes.” Hump grinned. “Apparently they don’t taste too bad though. He said somewhere between snake and chicken.”
“I’ve never eaten snake,” Bud said.
“Me neither.” Hump shrugged.
“I have,” Celaine said. “Taste’s kind of like frog.”
“You’ve eaten frog?” Hump said, scrunching his nose. “Isn’t that slimy?”
“Hey!” she said, offended. “I’m not the one who’s predecessors wrote about eating spiders. That book can’t have many spells if it’s full of crap like that.”
“It’s not crap,” Hump said. “Ivish was a little strange, but there was a logic to his madness. He found a way to use their venom to make a hallucinogen.”
“Perfect,” Celaine said. “So if you’re ever in the remote village in the southern country of Hersima—which, by the way, I’ve never heard of—you can get high off your face.”
“Exactly,” Hump said smugly. “And unless you change your attitude, I won’t give you any!”
Abruptly, Vamir stopped and stared off to his right.
Hump followed the man’s stare but saw nothing but trees.
“What is it?” Bud whispered.
Vamir held up a finger for quiet, and tilted his head, listening. Seconds passed in tense silence. Hump tried to listen too, but the pounding of his heart drowned out any other sound.
The attack came silently, and it came fast. A massive kobold, as big as Hump, leapt out from the trees to the left. Vamir spun to meet it. Even as he moved, he brought his bow up. An arrow flashed, piercing the creature through the eye and sending it tumbling. It hit the ground kicking and screaming, coming to a stop at their feet. Hump stared at it wide eyed as it writhed, quickly growing motionless.
Its body was covered in scales, much like the other kobolds he’d seen, but this one was bigger in every way. Bigger even than the yellow finned kobold he’d seen, nearly human size, and more muscly than Hump. It wore leather rags for armour and carried a spear with an iron point.
“Eyes up,” Vamir said. “There’s more.”
Bud drew his sword and knocked aside the arrow in a single motion. The source of which was met by one of Celaine’s own. It struck true, and the kobold fell screaming from its perch on a tree branch. The scream cut short as it hit the ground.
But where one fell, more came. Dark shapes took form amongst the trees, faintly illuminated by the glow of the trees and grass.
“Retreat to the cavern wall,” Vamir ordered. “Find cover.”
They did. The creatures formed a half circle around them as they went, cutting off any route of escape. There were at least a dozen of them as far as Hump could tell, and they were far better armed than the kobolds they had encountered previously.
Hump gripped his staff and readied his magic, funnelling it into the crystal. He’d taken cover behind a pair of interlocking trees, but had little protection from the flanks, and the kobold force was still beyond his range. Rockshot was his best bet over these types of distance, and there was no way he’d hit anything with all the trees blocking the way. Celaine and Vamir on the other hand, were another matter entirely. They shot arrow after arrow. From the distant screams, Hump judged at least a good portion of them were finding targets.
To the right flank, Hump caught sight of a pair of kobolds taking aim with their bows. He raised his staff toward them as their bowstrings twanged. Their arrows were a blur.
“Shield!” he shouted, hardening his will. The air distorted before him like a layer of rippling glass. The arrows struck it, causing ripples on the surface of the shield before clattering off harmlessly. “Archers to the right,” he called. Celaine turned toward them.
“Hump!” Bud cried. “Down!”
Hump knew the tone well enough. He dropped into a crouch, nearly losing his feet beneath him in his hurry, barely escaping the bite of Bud’s blade as it swept through the space his head had been. The icy cold flame of frostfire licked at the skin of Hump’s face and neck, and the blade cut through a leaping kobold that had been about to land on his back.
The kobold was cleaved in two around the waist. It landed at their feet in pieces, the grass gulping down the blood like water.
Bud bolted toward the main group as two kobolds pushed their way out of the trees straight ahead of them, trying to rush Celaine and Vamir while they were distracted. The knight reached them too quickly for them to get by. He roared as he charged, and the kobolds stumbled back, fear clear in their eyes as they stared at the frostfire that raged along Bud’s sword.
He cleaved through them, felling both so swiftly that the creatures behind them shied back. Bud roared again at the remaining kobolds, feigning a charge that sent them stumbling back further. Hump pointed his staff at them, gathering his essence into the crystal focus. “Blast,” he snapped. A wave of blue energy lanced through the air.
They were too far for the spell to do any real damage, but that didn’t make the effect any less satisfying. The blast shook the branches and leaves. It filled the air with a flash of blue light and pressure. The kobolds fled, shrieking and chittering as they went, scattering into the forest as quickly as they had appeared.
“Stay close, Bud,” Vamir shouted.
The knight nodded, falling back to stand in front of them, his sword held at the ready. They watched the trees, waiting. Hump’s heart raced in anticipation. He caught glimpses of the kobolds amongst the trees, but they were moving further away.
A deep growl rumbled in the distance, then clicked angrily, cutting through the shrieking like a knife. The kobolds stopped. All of them. While they didn’t run back into the fight, they took up positions amongst the trees once more, waiting. Staying behind cover where Vamir and Celaine couldn’t get a clear shot.
“What are they waiting for?” Celaine said nervously.
The four of them stared at the trees. Vamir walked forward to stand beside Bud, while Hump and Celaine stood shoulder to shoulder with their backs to the cavern wall and only a few trees for cover.
“Whatever thing made that noise,” Hump said.
Two creatures appeared from amongst the bulging trees, and instinctively Hump knew them to be different. Even compared to the fallen kobold at their feet, these were bigger.
They were human in general shape, though in the same way a minotaur was if you squint hard enough. Green scales coated their shoulders and backs, while their fronts were lighter and had a pale red tint to them. Beneath them were thick, dense muscles that made them radiate so much hulking mass Hump wondered how the creatures could walk. Their massive shoulders hunched forward, with a thick neck jutting out, and a hammer for a head. Their jaws were fixed with yellow dagger teeth. Scaledbrutes. Comparing them to their smaller cousins didn’t do them justice. They lumbered through the grove with heavy steps, their hands and feet wielding giant claws. Their eyes shone gold, with a frenzied black slit running down the centre.
Around their necks they each wore a necklace. Human teeth. He clenched his fist around his staff. The bigger of the two’s was fuller, almost fully wrapping around its neck. Hump’s stomach churned; these monsters were collecting trophies of those that they slaughtered.
“Those are not kobolds,” Celaine said.
“No,” Vamir said. “Those are scaledbrutes. I think we found ourselves a kobold den.”
“Great,” Hump said exasperated. “Mission success!”