The tinkling of small bells alerted Milo that he needed to run.
He had learned the hard way, and suffered two more deaths, that escaping the queen of snakes was quite difficult. She knew the tunnels well and didn’t follow directly, looping around through side corridors and filling them with her long body. The first death hadn't cost him anything, but the second had reduced a random skill.
Throw Sharp Things got knocked back down to Level 0. He considered himself lucky to only lose 50 EP.
He had spent time on the various game forums trying to find information. Incredibly to Milo, some gamers had actually died over a dozen times to the same creature just to test out the penalties. Dying several times in a small period of time made the penalties worse. Much worse was dying to the very same creature.
The severity of those penalties went down over time if you were careful and didn't die. There was one entire thread devoted to stories of what some players did while waiting a week in town. Drinking was popular along with training a weapon or learning a trade skill.
Milo didn't want to take time off, so he got careful. He started placing small bells in the different corridors to let him know when the snake was moving. The different tone of the bells even told him where she was. It wasn't a great system, but it helped. Piles of old cans and metal scrap also proved useful.
By the end of two weeks, Milo had the snakes’ movements mapped out, and his early warning system let him get to work. He wasn't mining, for the most part, he was scavenging. The old dwarven mines were a maze of cave-ins and treacherous areas, but they had a treasure Milo needed.
Cables and pulleys were at the top of the list. Regular steel cables had long since rusted away or were too prone to break. The Deep Iron cables were still strong. They were also heavy and very hard to work with. Milo spent days filling his magical storage area and bringing the hardware back to the base of the big drop. So far, the copperhead queen hadn't come down the long vertical shaft, even when pursuing Milo. She stopped at the edge and watched as he descended to the bottom.
His little workshop was filled with all the things he needed for his very cunning snake-trap. A few more hundred feet of cable, a bit of mining out some passages, and he'd be ready to see if it worked as well as it did on paper. His search had led him further and further into the maze of old tunnels. He'd encountered very few creatures. Two small cave mantises had ambushed him, and he'd had to kill a half dozen piles of sentient slime. Other than that, the tunnels were dark and silent.
Today he was following a tunnel that was better built that the rest of the mines. The walls were smoother, and the supports were stone, not timbers. Arched lintels were supported by thick pillars. The worn stone of the supports was still sound with very few cracks or chips. Branches off of this passage hadn't fared as well. They were clogged with rubble and time-rotted timber supports. After nearly a half mile of exploring, the strange tunnel ended in a set of sealed stone doors.
The flat stone surface of the doors was broken only by the vertical seam down the middle. A gear-shaped indentation that spanned the seam was about three feet up the door. Milo carefully examined the area for traps, but found nothing. Brushing dirt from the indentation, he could see runes carved into the stone, and a symbol he had seen on the spine of one of the engineering books he had studied. On a hunch, he placed his hand on the indentation and tried to activate the rune with mana. Nothing moved, but on the right half of the door, a complex diagram appeared. After staring at it for ten minutes, he realized it was an engineering problem and he had to select the right tension on two wires from a set of choices. He touched the two that would keep the structure stable. The diagram faded, and the doors opened slowly,
Strange smells came down the short hallway that led to a large room. Oil and ozone. The smell of metal and decay. It reminded him of many parts of the habitat. Pipes ran along the walls and ceiling heading to different tanks and machines. He recognized the ore-crusher, but none of the other machines. The floor was swept of dust, and overhead a few lights were slowly increasing in brightness.
The doors shut behind Milo. From his left he heard the sound of many steps.
They were barely recognizable as once having been dwarves. Bits of clothing or armor hung from their bodies. Missing body parts had been replaced with mechanical substitutes wired to their bones. Many had wrenches or drills instead of hands. If any had a beard, it was made of wires riveted to their jawbones. Glowing green eyes flashed in their eye sockets.
The pack paused, and one held out his hand. "...shoooyurbadge.."
From the pack came murmurs. "nobeard....nonono...nobeard", "tooopretty..tasty", "wharsyorbadge!" Slowly, step by step they edged forward. Milo was seeing a lot of teeth. "Badge? In my pocket. Why don't you fellows just back off and I'll pull it out."
If anything, his voice made things worse. The once-dwarves ran at him, stumbling forward, and raising their weapons. That was enough for Milo, he tossed an explosive skull to the right side of the mob, and dodged to the left. A wrench clipped him on his shoulder but did little damage and he was past the edge of the mob and running. His first spell had done some damage. One body was down, trying to reattatch a leg and others had taken wounds. He waited until the lead ghoul was almost on him and swung hard, putting both spikes into the creature. The lights in its eyes went out and it slumped to the ground.
Milo kept running, circling around them and his pursuers kept nicely bunched up. Another explosive skull took out several, and the remaining two stumbled forward to be taken out quickly.
Now that they weren't moving, he could see that the they were little more than bones and dried sinew wired to whatever mechanical junk seemed to be at hand. Even now, three of them were pulling parts off of others and trying to fix themselves.
A bad feeling made him stand and turn around. From a side passage came more of the once-dwarves. These were in better shape. Most wore partial suits of plate armor. All had beards of burnished copper wire, and the glow in their eyes spoke of intelligence. Seven of them moved forward, their heavy steps clanging as their metal feet came down upon the stone.
Milo readied a skull and pre-pared to fight.
The lead creature pointed a gauntleted hand at him. "You will come with us to see the engineer, or we will be using you as spare parts. Either choice is fine with us."