Holpsen felt a warm mist spray across his back just before the deafening roar cascaded through the tunnel. Turning around rapidly, the halfling could see the telltale sign of what had happened, the faint glow of discharged Glintstone catching his eye was all to easy to see.
Hastily ducking behind a ruined vendor stall, he trips on the rotten fabric of the banner, sending him sprawling to the ground. From this rather unique perspective, raw Glintstone crystals caught the warm glow of the halfing’s torch, casting a vibrant hue of amber irregularly across the ruins of the make-stop market. Holpsen tried as best he could to identify the dwarf rearming his thunderlance. Though try as he might, he regrettably did not memorize the names of the dwarfs that ventured with the party. He had guessed as much that the dwarves would mostly keep to themselves, their names always ended in some double-word derivative.
Holpsen desperately called out, “Mr. Greybeard, is that you?”
There was the one that Halxton had introduced the party to, at it was a fair guess at that. This one seemed to be wearing the same dark cloak.
“COME HERE VALORYAN. I CAN SEND ‘YE RIGHT TO HIM, LITTLE RUNT.” The taunt boomed throughout the stalls, followed abruptly by another round from the thunderlance, blasting the stall Halxton had crawled away from. The ringing in his ears sent his thoughts through a tumble.
Knowing his torch to be a dead giveaway, he debated the consequences of being lightless this deep. His former comrades paid a price far too high for the expedition to continue on. He was thankful he didn’t have to pay with his life to learn that lesson.
The others would be fending for themselves anyway, he reassured himself. Holpsen swiftly rose to his feet and poised himself to react to the next barrage.
The dwarf from down the market-tunnel fired again, this time thankfully missing by a wide margin. It seemed as though he slipped, as the superheated dwarven projectile seemed to hit the cavern ceiling. Regardless of the intention, the shot dislodged a chunk of the ceiling, sending a plume of debris and cloudy dirt filled smog billowing down, completely drenching Halxton and dosing his torch.
“LIGHTS OUT. I WILL HAVE YOU FED TO THE VERMIN FOR WHAT YOU DID TO MY CLAN BY THE END OF THIS.”
He saw the faint glimmer of the depleted Glintstone slowly fade into the darkness, like a anglerfish bobbing to find new prey. There’s a mad dwarf hunting me now, the onslaught of challenges this expedition gives never yields. Just what Valorya would use to test her next herald.
Then, there was silence. An eerie stillness had emancipated the market, only cut by the occasional flap of ratten fabric caught in a breeze. The intense heat from the Glintstone combustions combined with the deep blanket of soot suffocating the air caused sweltering beads of sweat to race down his forehead, dripping to the dust caked floor with a thud so dull Holpsen could never hope to hear it.
The dust slowly settled to the stone floor. The halfling crept cautiously until he could find a wall to collect himself. Weary of the various ceramics strewn throughout the market which he could not longer see, he took an excruciatingly long time in the dark to find a sanctuary that wouldn’t alert his position.
Was his name Greybeard? Or was it rather his accolades? No, perhaps it was that he had a greybeard?
Finding ways of passing the time when he was under extreme duress was one of the halfling’s many talents, it seems. Holspen came to realize that all the dirtbrains he saw at the rally point had greybeards.
Perhaps the dwarf thought that he was the one that dozed off on first-watch, Holpsen thought. Clearly, to anyone with eyes I look different than that pudge. After all, he didn’t even have anything worth taking from.
The fateful first watch had indeed fallen asleep while on guard duty. The ensuing madness that followed when the rats figured out how to dose the perimeter fire is one that will haunt Holpsen for the rest of his life.
Bumping into the odd pile of refuse, and navigating around ceramic rubble, Holpsen was getting closer. He considered lighting the torch, but the chance for the deranged dwarf to spot him again was too high.
The nightmare that he had endured happened two nights ago. Since then, he had made his way down several leagues of stairways, hoping to outpace any unlucky sod that lived through that ill fortuned night.
The fact that one of the merc’ dwarves not only had survived, but had somehow kept pace made Holpsen quiver slightly in the dark. After all, these tunnels used to belong to dwarven clansmen, some time ago. It isn’t farfetched to consider that they can live to be quite ancient, uncomprehendablely long for a halfling’s standard. A dwarf could know much more about the lay of the land than a labor district pickpocket.
Convinced that it’s the dwarf’s old age that had drove him mad, Holpsen determined his only options are to wait out the dwarf, attack the threat, or slither away in the darkness and not risk his hide. Holpsen never regretted putting himself first.
A few hours ago he had fallen through several levels worth of the Grand Mine. It had greatly expedited his progress to Valorya’s fabled vault. For blessing he was thankful for. He was nimble enough to avoid getting seriously hurt, but his rations pack wasn’t so lucky. Holpsen had a growing suspicion that hunger would become a fast acquaintance of his.
The darkness had once terrified him. What secrets could lie behind it’s thin veil? It was the darkness that swept over camp, snuffing out so many lives like a rushing wave over a bed of candles. It was that night that he learned it wasn’t truly the dark he was afraid of, but rather the chittering that bellows from it. The chittering of bone upon flesh.
Holpsen would never hear the muted screams over the chorus of the descending swarm. Once an appetite of blood was found, the horde feasting on adventurer and vermin in equal strides.
Holpsen remembers reading of a Valoryan Saint had once been baptized by shadows. He remembered it being a silly thought at the time. Now, approaching three days of existing in the everdark of the Catharian Grand Mines, he started to sympathize with the Saint. The nurseries always promised of great heroes returning to his folk. Though they were seen as tall tales, Holpsen couldn’t help but think of himself akin to one of those Saints, and this just his trial before Ascension. If I make it out of here, I’d better be blessed with sainthood. It’s what it will take to heal this ravaged body.
Holpsen had hoped there would be a point to this never ending nightmare. He feared there was none.