I awoke with a start in a cold sweat, breathing heavy and shaking uncontrollably. Tanis was by my side apparently attempting to wake me. Pharmis stood quietly by the doorway with a knowing expression that seemed to suggest she had expected something to happen.
“Are you alright, Marcus?” Tanis asked while she pressed a damp cloth to my forehead.
“I’m fine,” I told her. “Just a bad dream.”
“You have never slept in a grove before have you?” Pharmis asked from the doorway.
“No, I grew up in the city. One doesn’t just go to sleep in a park and expect to wake up in one piece.” I said in a horse race announcer’s voice.
“That is surprising to hear of one of your kind. You are more connected to nature than you realize. In fact you are more connected to others like yourself than you know.”
“Like some kind of shared memory?”
“Exactly, your race was dwindling during my time before the tear. I imagine that there are fewer still. The experiences of your people are passed on through the bloodlines.”
“That is a troubling thought. Why haven’t I experienced this kind of thing before?” I asked.
“That would be because nature magic is extremely weak in the city above. This grove, my grove, is nearly three hundred years old and is filled with so much of my power that it has power all its own. It is how grass, trees, and the small garden of crops have grown. There is no sunlight to feed them it is pure nature magic.”
“That had to have been the least pleasant memory to recall.” I said shaking my head.
“Whatever it was, it is likely it will have some relevance to you in the future. I would remember it and keep it in mind.”
“I honestly do not believe it is a thing I could forget.”
I stared at my hands for a moment. They were just my hands, but the memory of paws flashed before my eyes and suddenly my hands felt cold from the lack of fur. I shook my head again and sat up, I bent over and put my shoes back on before rising. Tanis stood with me and handed me Lucy’s gun belt. Pharmis left the doorway and headed back downstairs humming a soft melody to herself. Tanis and I gathered what little belongings we had and followed Pharmis to the first floor.
The aroma of grilled ham kissed my nostrils and my mouth instantly watered with hunger. We sat at the small table in the room and Pharmis served us dwarven style scrambled eggs, grilled ham and hash browns covered in thick gravy. Hot tea and milk was served to wash it all down. While we ate, Pharmis removed a small charm from underneath a strange looking beaker. I saw that a honey colored liquid had been slowly dripping from the beaker onto the charm.
Pharmis placed the diamond shaped charm into a woolen cloth and wiped it clean while chanting something quietly to herself. A light green glow covered the cloth and her hands as she wiped the charm clean. She cut a bit of thin rope from a spool she had on the table and made a necklace with it all. She walked over to me and handed me the charm.
“There you go, lad,” she said. “That charm will make you invisible to all forms of black magic. You should be able to venture freely in the streets above without worry.”
I stopped eating long enough to put the necklace on and instantly felt my other necklace go cold. I sighed and removed the protection charm and handed it to Pharmis.
“It appears that this will counteract the charm you have made.”
Pharmis took the necklace from me inspecting it. “Arcane magic is not my avenue of study, but this looks like exceptional work.”
“I have a rather skilled friend. Would you be so kind as to hold on to it for me.”
“Certainly, I could have it sent up topside, when it’s convenient.”
“Thank you again.” I said between bites.
“Now, speaking of going topside. You will need is a safe way back to the surface. We do have such a path that we created in order to get some supplies down here.”
“Is it just as dangerous as the path we took to get down here?” Tanis asked.
“Well… Yes and no. Judging by the sound your guns made you two entered Undercity in the heart of dretch territory. Noranox secures the path to the surface. Just don’t stray from the path and you will be just fine.”
“What is a Noranox?” I asked.
“A rather intelligent spider the size of this cottage.” She answered nonchalantly.
I cringed; regular spiders were bad enough. The thought of a spider large enough to eat me, made me subconsciously run my hand along Lucy’s handle.
“Noranox and her children feed off the dretch and the walkers tend to steer clear of area.”
“Well then, I think it is best that we be on our way.” I said.
“No worries, finish your meal and we’ll see about getting you home.” The elderly shaman said, turning back to her alchemist table.
I did not argue. The food was delicious and my body needed it to make up for all the extra work it had to put into healing me. While I ate the image of the scarred man with the sword resurfaced. I shook the thought away and slid the plate aside my appetite gone.
We exited Pharmis’s home into what one would consider a village square. Outside did not appear any different from when we had arrived with the exception that there were far more people about. The villager appeared to be busy doing their day-to-day tasks. I estimated there were about one hundred to a hundred and fifty people. Pharmis shouted one of the villagers over, another dwarf like herself. He was just less than four feet in height and had a long brown beard its tips tucked into his belt.
The dwarf had a wide face, a thick heavy brow and a large nose. He wore a derby style hat, a yellow shirt with deep green suspenders keeping her brown pants aloft. He had a pistol on his hip and rifle on his shoulder. To his side stood a hound nearly as tall as he. The dog looked to have been a mix of wolf and something I did not recognize. Its thick coat of fur was dark, nearly black and muscles rippled beneath it.
“Darvis Houndstride meet Marcus Moore and Tanis,” Pharmis introduced us.
“Good day to ya!” he replied. “This is here is Shadow Stepper.”
“Nice to meet you, both” I said with a nod and a smile.
“Good morning,” Tanis replied.
“So these two stirred up the dretch last night?” He asked Pharmis with a toothy smile.
“That they are. They seem to have gotten themselves is a bit of trouble and made the mistake of taking refuge in the city below.”
“That was a bit of a hard lesson wasn’t it?” Darvis asked us.
I rubbed my hand through my hair and half smiled. “You could say that.” I agreed.
“Darvis, these two need an escort back up to the surface.” Pharmis told him placing a hand on his forearm.
“That can be done, we need to do another supply run anyway. I was just about to head out.” He said with a warm look in his eyes.
“Thank you, Hun.” Pharmis told him.
“Anything for the Shaman.”
Tanis and I bid Pharmis our farewell and followed Darvis and Shadow Stepper through a tunnel of brambles out of town. The path was long and appeared to be illuminated by hanging lanterns each with a single glow stone. As we walked I took notice that Shadow Stepper took periodic glances back at us. Feeling slightly uneasy I decided to chat up our guide.
“About how long does it take to reach the surface?” I asked.
“It takes about an hour or so. This here tunnel will run us most of the way. At the end of it there is a quick ten-minute hike through some of the ruins to a sewer entrance. The tricky part is, the path is very specific. If you step off it you become fair game for Noranox’s children.”
“What else is down here? I knew about the walkers, trolls, and the dretch.”
“Oh, well let’s see there’s the spiders, the ooze, the harpies way down south. You got the Breull; they are a primitive, very violent lizard people. Bodies built like orc with the head of a crocodile. Then there are the denizens of Dark Hollow.”
“What’s Dark Hollow?” Tanis asked.
“From what the villagers say, back in the grove. It was an upper class neighborhood called Bright Hollow. After the tear, something from the other side moved in and setup shop. The creatures that lurk around that place would give you nightmares for weeks. Trust me, I know from first hand experience.”
“Wow, I knew there was life down here other than the undead, but I had no clue there was so much. How has none of this spilled out into the city above?”
“Mostly because what is down here doesn’t want to be up there. Except for the walkers who have no mind as it is. They just walk, hunt, and feed.”
“Very interesting” I said as we continued walking down the path.
Tanis stepped up next to Darvis. “How long have you been down here?”
“Oh, Shadow Stepper and I have been down here as long as the Shaman. I was a Warden in the Firemist Mountains. I assume they are still there?”
“Yes, they are still there. There is a city there too. It’s about a third the size of Luimere.” I told him.
“Good to hear. Well, Shadow Stepper and I were in the city to pick up some new recruits for wilderness survival training when the explosion happened. So many people died almost instantaneously, the rest were running frantic, lost and confused. During the chaos I took notice to a dome of vines a few blocks over. I marshaled up my recruits and whoever else I could and headed that way. It turned out that dome was the shaman’s and she was creating a shelter against the wave of magic. When all the dust settled, many left the city, others stuck around.”
“Why not leave when the Founders decided to rebuild over the old city?” Tanis asked.
“Well Missy, when those lads came around we had been here fending for ourselves for several years. We didn’t see the point.”
Their conversation continued as we made our way down the path. As we walked I tried to map out my next move. I was never much of a chess player, but I was well aware that checker tactics would not work against opponents like the Silverstein’s. My train of thought, however was broken by a voice in my head that was not my own.
“You are one of the blood aren’t you, youngling?” the voice said in a deep motherly voice.
I stopped in my tracks, “What?” I said aloud while looking around nervously.
Tanis and Darvis stopped just ahead of me a looked back.
“I was just telling Ms. Tanis here about the time Shadow Stepper and I got in a fight with a dire grizzly bear.” Darvis said with confusion on his face.
“I’m sorry, I thought heard something else.” I replied shaking my head. I thought I must have been thinking too hard.
“Ah, you are and have no clue. Did you parents not teach you about what it means to be what you are?” The voice said.
I looked around feverishly, but could not find the origin of the voice. Tanis and Davis had continued walking onward. The voice chuckled. “Look down, silly child.”
I did and saw Shadow Stepper looking up at me. “You?”
“I thought I was out of touch with the world, remaining under the city above. Yet, it seems that you are out of touch with your true nature.”
“I’m sure of myself, though I’m becoming less sure the longer I stay in Undercity. How are we talking? I mean you are obviously more than a hound.”
Shadow Stepper laughed heartily in my mind. “I am an original, child.”
Shadow Stepper was interrupted by a sudden outburst by Davis.
“What in the blazing is going here?” He exclaimed.
The path before us was blocked. I drew nearer and realized that webbing blocked off the tunnel.
“Is this the end of the tunnel?”
“No, the tunnel goes on for another ten minutes. Then it is a quick hike to the path that leads to the surface. That hike is through Noranox’s territory but her children never venture near the tunnel and usually veer away from the path we use.”
“Clearly something is not right.” Tanis said studying the web. “How thick do you think it is?”
“Thick enough that we don’t want to try and cut through it,” Darvis told her.
“Options?” I asked.
“There is another exit about fifty yards back. It will lead us to the edge of Noranox’s territory. But then we will have to walk over land through it to get to the exit.”
I swore. I noticed that I had been doing that a lot lately. I pulled out the enchanted pocket watch. It was still early, but I had a full day ahead of me. “Let’s get to it then,” I said.
We turned around and headed back down the tunnel. A few minutes later, we turned down the aforementioned path that we had passed. At the end of the tunnel was a bronze gate with the symbol of a large oak tree on it. Darvis removed a key from his belt and unlocked a small box to the right of the door. I could hear old gears grind as the lock shifted free. There was a bit of rumble and the gate slowly descended into a slot within the ground. We marched through the gate back into the ruined city. Darvis turned the key into a second box and the gate returned to its original position.
Tanis and I withdrew our weapons and followed closely behind Darvis and Shadow Stepper in silence. There was very little light other than the unnatural glow that the Undercity possessed. The crumbled buildings around us were covered in cobwebs layered so thick you could have mistaken it for silken wallpaper. It was eerily quiet and the shadows hung heavy; we trod lightly, stepping only on visibly solid surfaces. Davis did not tell us, but we assumed that disrupting the web would be bad. Logic, it’s a beautiful thing. We traveled for about fifteen minutes in silence and there had been no sign of life.
We passed a few web-covered corpses of dretch and what looked like a troll. Yet not a single spider was spotted, not a single web was rustled. I wasn’t sure what scared me more, the lack of spiders or the idea that spider were lying in wait. After traveling a few more yards we came to what I assumed was the entrance to the tunnel. It was covered with webbing and bodies; spider bodies that size of Shadow Stepper. We slowly crept closer and examined the corpses. The bodies were riddled with bullet holes and blade wounds.
“Who could have done this?” I asked in a low whisper.
“I don’t know. Just... I don’t know.” Davis said shaking his he head in disbelief.
“This is all wrong,” Shadow Stepper said in my head. “The air is wrong.”
I looked around and took a deep breath. The smell hit me almost immediately something foul like rotting eggs and outhouse refuse. My eyes watered up and I quickly shielded my nose. Shadow Stepper headed in the direction of the smell. Darvis close on her tail with his rifle in hand.
Tanis and I brought up the rear as the path led us to what appeared to be a blown out cathedral. Half of its white marble halls and charcoal colored roofing were shattered and scattered about. There were more bodies lying about all displaying the same wounds as we had seen at the tunnel exit. As we drew nearer we could hear struggled breathing from huge lungs. I stopped and placed a hand on Darvis’ shoulder.
“Wait, do we want to go in there?”
“Want to not really, but believe it or not, constant threats of eating me notwithstanding; Noranox was a friend.”
“I was afraid you would say something like that.” I sighed and opened the wheel on Lucy. I shook out the bullets and quickly loaded an inferno round followed by five standard rounds.
We slowly entered the decrepit cathedral, weapons ready to shoot anything that pounce out at us. The cathedral must have been a sight to see in its full majesty. Even in the deteriorated state it was quite impressive some ten stories high. Inside it featured vaulted ceilings and large marble columns engraved with images of a deity I did not recognized.
Webs covered everything the eye could see and the ceiling itself was just a solid white mass. The ground was littered with the remains of the dead, both the bodies of long since dead and many fresh bodies of fallen spiders. In the center of the massive oratory where mass was once held amongst shattered stone pews laid the hulking body of Noranox.
Noranox shared a likeness with a tarantula in portions and general appearance. This however is where that likeness ended. Unlike the tarantula which is covered in fur, Noranox’s body was covered in hardened plates, littered with nearly foot long spikes. Unlike its tarantula counterpart, Noranox possessed one hundred eyes, each of which were clouded as if the massive creature was blind.
I followed closely behind Darvis and Shadow Stepper; Tanis was not far behind keeping an eye on the rear. I could see the massive creature was breathing faintly and as we drew nearer the smell of corruption swelled from her body. There were wounds everywhere. Bullet holes, large gashes, scorch marks and acid burns covered the creature’s huge frame.
Lying on the ground beneath her, I saw more bodies of the long gone and of her many children. But there were none of who assaulted the giant spider.
“Who’s there?” The creature said in a strained gravelly voice.
“It’s Darvis and Shadow Stepper.” The stout dwarf said stepping closer.
“Oh yes, the tiny morsel and his furry friend.”
“Noranox, what happen?” Darvis asked drawing nearer to the beast. I noticed he stopped just outside the spider’s long reach.
“They came in the night whist my kind slept. They had the smell of walkers but they were not empty of mind. They moved with an unnatural swiftness for your two-legged kind. The screams of my children filled the air. I made the cry for assault, and then there were a loud bangs and a bright flashes.” The creature’s breathing strained and it seem to struggle to speak. “Blur forms rushed my cathedral. They were strong and their weapons seemed to ignore my thick hide. Their smell was not… right; it was nastier than that of the walkers.” The spider struggled for breath.
The hair on my neck began to crawl and a sudden chill ran down my spine. I slid my goggles over my eyes and press the button to change the lenses. The tiny gears when into motion and few seconds later I could see what I really did not want to see. Coiled around Noranox’s body was a grotesque spectral creature reminiscent of a leech combined with a centipede. The creature’s thousand legs appeared to be imbedded into Noranox’s torso and thorax. The creature’s gaping maw was latched onto the top of the giant spider’s head staring right at us. It was feeding off of the helpless creature while waiting. As I stared speechless a light yellow glow began to fill each Noranox’s one hundred eyes. I swore...again.
“Um... Darvis, we need to leave.” I said.
“I cannot leave her to die alone.”
“If you don’t, you will be dying with her!” I exclaimed.
“There are no threats nearby Marcus. Shadow Stepper would have heard them and warned us.”
The spider shuttered a dying breath.
“Farewell old friend.” Darvis said as he walked over and placed his hand on Noranox’s large head.
“DARVIS, NO!” I screamed.
“You should have listened to him little morsel,” came a hollow voice from the dead spider.
The familiar yellow glow that filled eyes of every walker I had ever seen, shone brightly from one hundred eyes. Noranox’s two large fangs wrapped around Darvis before he had time to react, the hearty dwarf screamed in agony from intense pain. The stout little dwarf managed to pull his pistol and fired several rounds into one of the fangs.
The creature reeled releasing its grip on Darvis. He fell to the floor in visible pain, his blood covering the webs and ground. Tanis and I did not hesitate to act the moment the dwarf was out of the line of fire. The sigils on Lucy gleamed and another ball of pure flame erupted from the barrel. The ball struck the undead spider squarely in its large head.
At the same time Tanis fire five precise shot at the spider’s joints. The creature screamed and fell back, and then it stood on all eight legs. It body covered in burning flame. It just stood there. I swear if it could it would have been smiling. It advanced on us with monstrous quickness unfazed by the assault.
I saw Shadow Stepper run over and check on Davis. Tanis and I fired rounds at the beast that seemed to ricochet off Noranox’s natural armor, while we avoided the heavy legs lashing out at us. The undead beast chased us violently around the massive room. It plowed through the stone pews and pillars like they were nothing. Chunks of broken stone and marble flew passed our heads and ricocheted off of the wall in random directions.
“Tanis, we have to work out a strategy if we going to make it out of this alive.” I yelled over the spider’s loud roar.
“What do you have in mind?” She yelled back.
“Well, we could try to get it to crush itself with one of these columns.”
“And how do you propose we do that?” Tanis inquired between shots for her rifle.
“I’m working on it, I’m working on it.” I yelled back dodging another swing. I crawled behind a wall and quickly reloaded my pistol.
“I have a better idea,” said a strained voice.
I looked around the wall to see Davis standing blood covering his clothes. In each of his hand was a single metallic sphere. His face grimaced with pain and I could see it was a great deal of effort that was keeping him upright.
“Darvis, stand down! We can handle this!” I screamed.
“You don’t understand, Marcus,” he said with a cough. “Noranox has been turn into a walker, a zombie, and I’ve been bitten. I’m not turning into one of those things. Tell Pharmis... I’m sorry.”
Darvis pressed down on the spheres. Crimson lines of arcane energy appeared on the surface creating a magically sigil. He moved limply to the center of the demolished cathedral.
“NORANOX!!!” He screamed with all his might.
The giant spider halted in its attempt to capture Shadow Stepper. It turned toward the severely wound dwarf. Its gravelly voice rumbled, “little morsel.”
“I have your little morsel right here!” Darvis yelled back.
I have seen many heroic feats in my lifetime, none will ever match to what I witnessed that day. Bleeding heavily from a wound in his side as big a grapefruit, Darvis charged the flame covered zombie giant spider without fear. The two charged one another; the metal orbs gleaming with crimson power in Darvis’ outstretched hands. The two collided with a massive explosion and both went flying in opposite directions. The explosion was mighty and knocked both Tanis and I from our feet.