Chapter 5: Dwarf Village
"You're no monster!" the dwarf with the axe exclaimed in surprise. "What are you doing in the escape tunnels?"
Randi's offered a weary smile. "Escape tunnels?"
"That's right. If you wanted to come to the village, why didn't you use the main entrance? Are you a friend or foe?"
"Friend," he answered, letting his sword fall to his side. "A friend who would like to use the front door next time."
The two dwarves broke into smiles at that comment. "So, you found a little trouble in those tunnels. And here I thought only the redhead was crazy enough to explore those tunnels these days."
Randi didn't know what he meant by that, especially as neither of the dwarves had much hair to speak of atop their heads. Their skin was a medium brown in color, looking much like thick leather. They both sported heavy mustaches and beards around their faces, despite the absence of hair anywhere else. Their limbs were thick and stocky, corded with muscle that rippled as they shifted.
"What brings you here?"
"The Underground Palace," he replied. "I need to go there."
They glanced at each other for a minute. "If you're serious about that, you'd better talk to the Elder of this village about it."
"Be glad to. Is there a place to sleep here?"
"Sure, just go to the inn. Not used much these days, but I'm sure the innkeeper would be happy to accommodate you for a price."
"Where is it?" Randi asked. "I'll talk to the Elder tomorrow."
"Third level. There's a big sign there. You can't miss it."
"Third level?" Randi walked forward to look at the village. He gaped as he saw the size of the underground complex.
He hadn't realized how far underground he had descended. The ceiling of the village was at least three hundred feet high. He was at the bottom of a huge, sloped pit. A winding road laced around in circles, offering a pathway to the top of the pit. Along these pathways, countless entrances were dug into the walls, leading into what Randi supposed where rooms. The winding roads were connected by staircases cut into the rocks. At the bottom of the pit, a huge lake of water collected, then drained out to some unknown place.
It was a sight to take one's breath away. As it was it took a moment before Randi could tear his eyes away from it all. This was what adventuring was about! He might have every monster in the land chasing after him, but to think he was actually seeing a place like this for himself! This would be a story to tell someday!
"Yeah, the third level from the bottom," one of the dwarves said, in reply to his question. "If you don't mind, I'll go tell the Elder about you and advise him that you're interested in the Underground Palace.
"Uh right, thanks." Randi broke into a walk for one of the staircases, well aware of the stares he was getting from various dwarves around the area. He didn't blame them. Besides the fact that he was probably the only human in the entire area, he probably looked bad even for a human. He couldn't imagine how much dirt, dust and dried blood was smeared over his body and clothing, and didn't think he wanted to know at the moment. After ascending two staircases, he looked along the flat area cut into the slope of the pit. It didn't take him long to spot the sign labeled ‘INN', and make a beeline for it.
He ducked slightly to fit under the entrance way, since it was obviously made for a dwarf. The dwarf at the counter stared for a moment when he entered, but composed himself quickly for business. "Been a while since any travelers came by, what with the monsters around these days."
"Can't say I blame them," Randi agreed. "How much for a night?"
"Thirty coppers if you're paying with money."
"Thirty!?" Randi protested in disbelief. This was a high-priced village!
"Well, that's unless you care to pay in something else. You don't seem to have much on you."
"Something else? Like what?"
"You got any food on you? I guess you don't know much about this village, but we've got more gold than food around here. It's not easy getting stuff from Pandora all the way over here. Especially with the plague they've got on ‘em these days."
"Well, I've got some dried meat and fruit here, but it's nothing special." Randi held up one of the packages of fruit to demonstrate how pathetic it was for payment.
"I'll tell you what. You can stay for two days in exchange for that fruit."
Randi's eyebrows went up. "It's a deal," he agreed. Privately, he wondered who was really getting the deal, but it was definitely a good price on his side. How much did food cost here? "I guess I don't want to stay at a restaurant here."
"Some people consider our foods to be delicacies," the dwarf retorted. He calmed down quickly. "Me, I'd sell my soul for something other than meat. Even the best of seasonings get dull before long."
"Oh. All I meant was that the food must be expensive."
The dwarf looked somewhat apologetic. "Of course. Well, I don't know what you consider expensive, but if you think the money-price for this inn is high, you're probably right. You can have room 10. Fifth door on your right. Have a good sleep."
Randi accepted a key from the man. "Thanks." He walked towards the passageway leading back, unable to help noticing how cleanly cut all the walls and ceilings were. Obviously they took some pride in their work around here. Despite the somewhat dusty air and lack of sunlight, Randi had to admit, it was a very nice village. Deep down, he wondered how friendly this village would be if they knew what he was about. He had better not spend too much time in this village. He would hate for more monsters to come for him here.
He awoke some time later, feeling much less weary and ready to continue his journey, although a little stiff from his sleep. The bed had no doubt been big for a dwarf, but it was a little short for someone his size. To his annoyance, he hadn't let go of the sword all night. He had to find a better way to carry it around. He also realized that he might be in the perfect place to do that. Hadn't Jema said that dwarves were experts on weapons? Maybe he could even see about getting his sword polished up?
All in all, he had a few things to do. He decided that a sheath would be a nice thing to get first. That way he wouldn't look like some madman running around with a loose sword. He shouldered his pack and left the room. He stopped to ask the innkeeper for directions.
"Ground level, you'll find the shop. You can get anything except the actual weapons and armor themselves. For that stuff you'll want to talk with the blacksmith. He's at ground level too."
Randi immediately headed for the nearest staircase, reasoning that ground level would mean at the top, since the whole village was underground. He looked up. That meant he'd have more than a few staircases to climb.
As he ascended the staircases, he got a good look at the village. It was a busy place, with dwarves headed every which way. Some of them gave him curious glances, but most seemed too busy to be troubled with him. Virtually every single male dwarf had some sort of weapon on them, mainly axes, although there were some swords. All looked magnificent in their sheaths and holders, not rusty like his own sword. Randi guessed that the inhabitants around here were used to fighting. They would probably be able to hold out a long time against the monsters that were appearing these days.
One thing that struck him was that everyone seemed a little grim. Perhaps the situation was worse than he thought. He recalled the high prices of food. Perhaps they were beginning to feel the pinch of isolation? It would probably be difficult to grow food underground, and it was a long trip to the nearest village. He wondered how bad things really were.
A groan to his right caught his attention. A small figure was leaning up against the wall, bundled up in some old worn blankets. They were shaking slightly from beneath the blankets. A frail hand was showing from under the blanket. A bowl with one or two copper coins lay in front of them. Randi gulped. Obviously things were very bad for some dwarves here. He guessed that those coins wouldn't buy much food for the individual. Even he was better off than this person here. After hesitating a moment, he reached into his pocket and took out a few gold pieces and dropped them in the bowl. Without another word, he continued walking onwards, heading towards the top level. He gave one last sympathetic glance at the miserable figure. He would get by without the money just fine-
He stared in shock as he realized that the figure had disappeared. He looked all around, but could see no sign of the individual. Where had they gone off to? He shook his head. Maybe they were already in the food store? He wouldn't worry about it. It wasn't a big issue, was it?
He had almost reached the top level of the village when he heard his name called out. Surprised, he turned to face the source. He hadn't given his name to any one yet, so how did anyone know his name. As he identified the source, he groaned.
"Lady Purim. Imagine meeting you here."
She gave him an insincere smile. "You make good time for an idiot who got in through the emergency exit. You should hear the gossip around this place."
"I do what I have to do. What are you doing here?" He mirrored her smile. "I thought you had a witch to fight?"
"I have need of some tools to get into that place. This is the best place to get tools."
"You'd better have brought some money with you. Things here can get expensive."
"I'm a noble-woman. Of course I have money. But you're one to talk. I think you just got swindled out off a few pieces of gold. The minute you turned your back, that beggar left in a hurry."
Randi's eyes narrowed. "And where did he go?"
"To the top of this village."
"That's impossible. They'd have to go the same way I am."
"They went up, idiot. Just climbed up the side of the pit like it was nothing. Actually, they practically jumped the distance. I didn't think a dwarf was capable of moving that fast."
"Then I'm going to take a little look for myself." Randi spun around and headed towards the steps. He was aware that Lady Purim was following him, no doubt interested in what was to come. Then again, she was looking for tools of some sort. She was probably headed to the same place he was.
Now where would that little beggar have gone to? Come to think of it, that hand had looked thin, but it hadn't even belonged to a dwarf! Much too thin and wiry. He had the sneaking suspicion that he'd been conned out of some gold. Now he meant to fix things up. Whoever it was, they would regret what they'd done.
"So what brings you here?" Lady Purim seemed to be feeling conversational.
"Business," he muttered.
"Did I catch you in a bad mood? Oh, of course. You're mad about losing that gold. So why are you so uptight over it? If you could afford to give it to a beggar, you must have some to spare."
"That's not the point. I thought someone needed the money more than I did, that's all. And you'd be a lousy mood if you'd been through everything that I've been through."
"You should've taken me up on my offer before. I had an easy trip."
Randi scowled. "I'm sure you did. All the monsters were busy tracking me down. You have me to thank for an easy trip."
"Right." She clearly either didn't believe him or else didn't understand what he meant. The latter was more likely, Randi guessed. But he didn't really care. She was just an annoyance to him. He didn't care if she was royalty back in Pandora.
"Look, my offer still stands, you know."
"Not interested. Besides, I'm here. You don't have anything else to offer me."
"Not true. I'm still a noble-woman. If it's money you need, I have plenty of that. I'll make it worth your while."
"Get lost. If I needed money, all I need to do is demand money. I'm supposedly the only hope for this world, aren't I?" Sarcasm was dripping from Randi's voice as he said that. "Your king would have given me money if I'd needed it."
"Well, what do you need then?"
"Nothing you can provide. Take my advice. Go back home. Unless you think you can do what a team of soldiers couldn't do."
"I'll find a way," she muttered.
"You'll get killed long before you do."
"Hmph. Did you hear me back in Pandora? I said ‘Over my dead body', and I meant it. I'm going to do whatever it takes to save him."
"So what is he to you? His name is Dyluck, right?" Randi asked. "I talked with his family in Kippo village. Seems you and him are pretty close."
"Yeah, you could say that. He'd be doing the same for me if our positions were reversed."
"He'd have a better chance of success than you."
She glared at him. "Hey, you know what? I really don't care. I just need something from this village, then I'm out of here and going to teach that witch a lesson!"
Randi rolled his eyes as he continued onwards. "You're crazy. Maybe you'll get lucky and live to regret what you're doing. I can't believe you're even asking me to accompany you!"
"Be that way. I'll manage fine on my own."
They both walked in silence for the rest of the way, deliberately avoiding each other's gaze. It remained that way until they were at the top level, and had run out of places to walk. They looked around curiously, both looking for the shop. They searched for another staircase, but there was none to be seen.
Randi grimaced. "Maybe his directions were wrong." He looked at the entrance present. It had a sign with the picture of a cup on it. Probably a bar. He would ask for directions there and this time make sure he understood them.
He didn't have to duck to fit through this doorway. He guessed that it was meant to be visitor friendly, even though they wouldn't have many people from other villages stopping by these days. The minute he entered the bar his attention was drawn to one thing.
Not the vast assortment of expensive looking liquor along the back wall. Not the dancing dwarves - female he presumed - on stage to his left. Not the fifty or so dwarves seated throughout the room, all laughing or drinking.
"You wouldn't believe the idiot who just got here! I hear he was too stupid to even use the front door! I just got some easy gold off of him..."
Without hesitation, Randi strode over towards the source of the higher-pitched voice. The figure was small, even for a dwarf, looking somewhat frail. He grabbed the chair that the individual was sitting on, and without hesitation, lifted it right off the ground. Even Randi was surprised at how easily he accomplished the task. It was as though he was only lifting the chair. Or maybe it was just adrenaline rush. Randi was angry. He had plenty of enemies as it was. He didn't need petty problems right now.
"This idiot," he hissed, "thinks that you have some explaining to do."
The figure effortlessly bounced off the chair and landed a distance away, perched on another chair like a bird. "Aw, easy come, easy go, don't ya know?"
For a fraction of an instant, Randi lost his voice as he took in the thief. It was clearly no dwarf. It was perhaps four and half feet tall. It was dressed in an aquamarine tunic and pants, with a gold belt around its waist. All Randi could see was its face, hands and feet, which were all light skinned and lightly built. Its head was covered with a huge mop of flaming-red hair that reached past its waist. Through the hair, two large white furred ears stuck up like a cat's. It looked like a bizarre cross between a human kid and a cat. Except much more elegant and graceful. Even now, it was balancing on the back of the chair, glaring at him.
Randi could read the message of challenge in the intense green eyes. He felt much the same way right now. "I think you have something that belongs to me."
"Hmm? It's always been tradition in this village that you don't deserve anything you're not smart enough to hold on to. Idiot."
"Considering that you're stupid enough to let the world know that you stole some gold from me, I'll give you the chance to return it peacefully. I'm not looking for trouble, but believe me, I'll return it."
"Considered and rejected. Get lost before I take it personally. Idiot."
Randi approached the strange creature, which he'd never seen before in his life. He didn't even know if it was male or female. "Don't waste my time. If you haven't taken it personally, you might as well do it now."
Randi was sick of the verbal bantering. Fast as lightning, he threw his left hand out towards the strange creature. His opponent nimbly jumped straight up, and flipped upside down, one of its feet grabbing on to an outcropping in the ceiling.
It blinked innocently. "Too slow. Idiot."
The bartender hit the bar hard enough for the room to hear. "You know the rules, you darn scamp!"
The creature grimaced. "Yeah, yeah, blow it out your nose. We'll call a ten second truce and move this little disagreement outside. Let's go. Idiot."
With an exaggerated swagger, the creature walked out the door and waited expectantly.
Randi laughed and walked over to the table where the creature had originally sat and grabbed the two pieces of gold that had been stolen. "Well, my problem is solved. Idiot."
Most of the bar burst into a roaring laughter as they realized that the creature had just been outsmarted. Randi decided that dwarves had a healthy sense of humor. It was just that... creature that was different. What was it, anyway? He'd never seen or heard of anything remotely close. Outwardly, he just smiled and approached the bartender. "I seem to be a little lost. Isn't this ground level?"
The bartender shook his head. "Why no, ground level is at the bottom of the village! Where else would it be?"
Randi grimaced. Of course. One had to think like a dwarf when following directions. "Thanks. I'll be going before I attract any more trouble."
Without warning, a small rock cracked off the side of his head, making him yelp with surprise. He spun around to face his opponent, who was standing in the doorway, clearly angry over his defeat. "Get... out... here... right... NOW!!!"
"I've got no reason to fight," Randi said.
"You started the fight, coward. Get out here and finish it!"
He bristled. "Don't be an idiot. Give it up now and there'll be no hard feelings."
"You chicken? Coward."
"I've just got more important things to worry about. Find someone else to steal from, okay?"
"You're into going anywhere until we resolve this little ‘disagreement', coward."
Randi's eyebrows narrowed. The ‘coward' label was beginning to get to him. Fine then. He'd shut this little... thing... up and be on his way. "Have it your way. But I'll warn you now. I don't have much time to spare."
"This won't take long, I promise."
Randi pocketed the two gold pieces and strode towards the doorway. The creature smiled a sly smile and skipped back a few steps to put some room in between them.
"Now, in my traditional duel fashion," it announced, sounding somewhat ceremonious, "I'm shall now proceed to gut you like the pig you are."
"How sweet of you to-" Randi cut himself off as the creature sprang at him like a lightning bolt. He slid to the side and felt a knife blade skim along the edge of his shoulder. But he ignored it and jabbed out with his free hand, not wanting to use his sword quite yet. But the creature moved like the wind, already out of Randi's range.
The ground suddenly bean to shudder suddenly beneath their feet. Randi's eyes widened in surprise, but his opponent shrugged. "Just mild earthquakes. They've been somewhat active the past few days. Don't let it distract you from our little disagreement, idiot," it taunted. "Try that again?"
"No," Randi said. "This time-" He sprang towards the creature, "-I attack!"
His fist reached for the creature, but again, it was already out of the way and darting in with its knife. Randi pulled back before it could touch him. He realized that what he was doing wasn't going to work. His opponent was faster than he'd ever believed possible. He would have to take this fight seriously. And that meant-
He leveled his sword at the creature. "I don't have time for this. Back down or you get it."
"Just try to touch me, slowpoke!" The creature lunged again, moving so fast that Randi could only make out the swirl of red hair around it. Instinctively, he hit the ground, kicking out his foot in the path of the creature. The creature stopped short and stabbed several times in the blink of an eye. Unfortunately, the stabs all fell short. Randi quickly realized that his short opponent, while extremely fast, had shorter arms and limbs. All he needed to do was try and use that to his advantage...
The next his opponent came at him, he used short thrusts to keep some distance between them. Then his opponent finally dove forwards, throwing up its knife to push away Randi's sword, and dive towards Randi's face. Randi felt a searing pain in his cheek as the creature's hand raked across it before diving away to safety.
He put his hand to his cheek, and it came away red with blood. The creature smirked, displaying long claws on the end of its hand. They looked like small knives. Randi gritted his teeth and decided that he didn't care about this creature's health anymore. It was just another monster in his way. An obstacle that was keeping him from surviving. He'd survive against this one too. No more holding back.
The ground shook again, a little more severely this time.
"Had ‘nuff?" the creature taunted, standing in front of a pillar of rock. "I'm just getting warmed up. This is kinda fun. Say ‘uncle' whenever you've had enough."
Randi knew what it wanted. It wanted him to swing, and hit the rock. Then it would attack before he could recover. This was his chance. He knew something that the creature didn't.
"Not quite," he growled, hurtling towards his opponent again, sword already swinging forward. The creature simply waited, looking confident. Not half as confident as he was. It would surrender or it would die.
With an audible swish, the sword blazed a pathway through the air, intent on cutting the creature in two. The creature effortlessly sprang upwards, jumping clear over Randi's head, already stabbing downwards. Randi ducked low, his sword still swinging in an arc. It flashed right through the pillar, chips of rock exploding everywhere as the sword passed through it like a hot knife through butter. Randi transferred the sword to his left hand and spun around, letting the sword come around again towards his opponent.
The creature was in the process of trying to skewer him, figuring him momentarily disabled. It gave a squeak of disbelief as it saw the sword coming towards it at full speed. It threw up its blade to deflect the sword, but the Mana Sword smashed through the metal blade just as easily as the rock. At the last moment, it skipped backwards, but not quick enough.
The sword flashed through its side without a hint of resistance. The creature yelled in pain, tumbling backwards in a messy fashion. After a second, it recovered and stared at him and the rock pillar in disbelief. It gingerly touched its side, where blood was streaming down rapidly, through the cut in the material. It soon lost its amazement, a look of hatred coming over its face.
Beneath the earth began to violently shake. This time, the tremors didn't fade away. But neither opponent took any notice of them.
"I don't know who you are," the creature yelled, "or what that sword is, but no more games, you little swine! You... DIE!!!" It tossed aside its broken weapon, and grabbed something else from its belt. Two large metal rings.
Randi went numb as he realized what they were. He remembered the dead monster in the caves. It had been killed by a razor-edged ring that had been thrown. The guard had talked about the ‘redhead' who went into the cave at times. He was looking at that redhead, and he was its next target with those rings.
He charged the creature, hoping to get to it before it could think to throw one of the deadly weapons, but it was futile. With a grunt, the creature launched itself upwards. Randi gasped as he saw the creature leap a full twenty feet off the ground. At the height of its jump, it tossed one of the discs at him. Without understanding why, Randi threw up his sword and twisted it sideways. The ring bounced off the flat of the blade, hitting the ground harmlessly. But Randi was already moving, instinctively doing what he knew had to do be done before this fight went any further. The creature had jumped straight up, and was staying up a long time. Within seconds, he directly underneath the creature, his sword pointed straight up. The creature could do nothing to avoid the inevitable. It was going to fall straight on the point of Randi's sword. It had come down to this, and Randi would do what he had to do. He hated killing something that wasn't a monster, but either this creature or himself died...
If this was case, the creature seemed intent on returning the favor. Even as it descended on Randi's sword, it heaved its remaining ring at him, the circular blade aiming straight for his neck. Randi tried to redirect her sword, but immediately realized that he wasn't going to be fast enough...
Without warning, the ground gave a heave, throwing Randi completely off his feet. The ring bounced harmlessly off the ground where he'd been a moment ago. Randi regained his feet with difficulty. The creature landed lightly on its feet, seeming to have less difficulty standing up as it quickly recovered the ring and prepared to throw it again.
"Having some trouble?" it mocked, every word dripping with venom. Its eyes almost looked like they were on fire. Blood was still dripping on the ground from where it had been wounded. "Don't let a little shaking distract you from our fight!"
Randi was only listening to half of it. Something wasn't right here. In the corners of his vision, dwarves were running every which way, most in a state of panic. Randi didn't know why the creature in front of him wasn't worried, but he himself was getting edgy.
A huge piece of rock smashed down ten feet from Randi. He realized that it had been shaken loose from the ceiling. His opponent still took no notice, now drawing its arm back to fire another shot at him.
"Stop this, you idiot! This village is falling apart!"
Then the entire ground lurched, throwing both fighters to the ground. Huge chunks of rock were ripped from the ground and tossed into the air as something huge burst out of the bedrock and scattered boulders every which way. Randi scrambled to the right as a rock as big as he was smashed into the ground mere feet from where he was struggling to keep his footing.
The assault of rocks finally cleared, letting Randi see what the cause of was.
To the side, Randi heard his opponent utter a stream of foul language as it took in what had broken up their fight. Randi's heart skipped a beat as he craned his neck to take in the monster. It was over twenty feet tall. It was a plant. It looked like an out of control weed. Long tendrils reached in the air, some wrapping around rocks and picking them up and tossing them away. A long stem was in the center, thicker than any tree Randi had ever seen. At the top, a massive jaw piece opened and snapped shut loudly.
Randi saw the ground in front of him split open and yet another tendril punch out, headed straight for him. He shook off his stupor and ducked it, slashing with his sword and cutting off the end of the tendril. The giant jaws clicked noisily as five more tendrils focused on him and reached for him.
Randi leveled his sword at their approach. Nothing special. He'd already been fighting. This was just a new opponent. And one he didn't mind killing. "You want a piece of me? BRING IT ON!!!"