“Some hoard of treasure this is,” Darsil’eit scoffed, smacking Gax in the back of his head.
Gax turned to glower at his elf companion as she strode by, but she ignored him to inspect an arrow she had moments ago held against her bowstring. “I’m telling you, I had a vision. There’s weapons and armor, trinkets with gold and jewels in one of these caves.” Gax frowned at the pile of animal feces he had knelt down to inspect, nervously running his fingers along one of the large canines that protruded from his lower jaw.
“You probably saw pixies dancing and screwing in the air when you had your vision with as much wanderer’s moss as you ate. Tiny, stupid orc brain couldn’t tell you when to put the stuff down.”
Gax hefted his battleaxe and stomped after Dar as she walked away. “A tiny, stupid orc brain that didn’t see no pixies, but saw treasure. I’m telling you, Dar, it’s around here somewhere.”
“We should be on a ship, guarding some pompous noble for easy coin, but instead we’re chasing down your drug dreams.”
In short order, the pair found themselves walking along the rocky path that led down from the mountain cave they had just ventured into, the sunrays weakening as the day ended. Intermittent patches of yellow grass, scraggly bushes, and trees sparsely covered with green leaves wavered as a light breeze blew. Gax harrumphed as he marched after Dar, kicking at the dust. A whirlwind of swirling dirt spun up and away from him, drawing his eyes up to the tip of a mountain not far away.
There he saw a flicker of light… of firelight.
“Dar! There!” he hissed, hustling forward to put one meaty hand on her slender shoulder, the other jabbing a green finger ending in a pointed nail at the spot. “That’s it, I swear by Axrom’s hairy balls.”
Dar was silent for a moment, scrutinizing the cave Gax indicated. “Axrom’s balls may have it right this time. Come on.”
The duo picked their way along the rocky cliffs and mountain trails, keeping tight to the walls in case a scout patrolled the cave entrance. A cautious approach yielded an unguarded entrance, which worried Gax a little bit. Who wouldn’t at least leave some kind of magical construct to guard a hoard hidden in the side of the Arrow Mountains?
“Careful going in,” he whispered. “Traps or some kind of beastie could be waiting for us.”
Dar nodded as she ascended the final step to the back of the cave entrance. The pair skirted the edge of the cave and peered in to find nothing but weak firelight flickering off the many facets of the rock wall. They inspected the floor and walls, tossed a length of rope out to detect any tripwires hidden from sight, then proceeded into the cave to discover a descending, winding way that had been purposefully worked into the rock.
Gax danced in place as they came across a torch burning in a sconce set in the cave wall. “Oh, Dar, this is it!”
“Hush before someone or something hears you!”
The spiraling tunnel eventually gave way to a dark chamber with a flat floor and low ceiling, so low in fact that Gax had to hunch and nearly walk on his knees. “We split up here,” Dar whispered, indicating the three exit tunnels from the chamber.
“My arse, we split up!” Gax protested, drawing a scowl and hiss from Dar. “I’m just saying, we don’t know what’s down here.”
“Look at the size of this chamber,” Dar said. “It can’t be big enough to worry a big orc like Gax. We meet back here in a half hour.” With that, Dar slid away down one curving tunnel, a small flicker of light from a torch somewhere down that passageway lighting the tunnel wall ever so slightly. Gax took a few shuffling steps in her direction but stopped as he imagined the admonishment he’d receive if he followed his irate companion.
Gax huffed then ambled toward the only other passageway with a bit of torchlight flickering off its walls. He found this tunnel also with a short ceiling and cursed Axrom’s genitals as his battleaxe scraped off the rock above his head, a small shower of dust raining down his back.
Around a sharp bend Gax came upon another torch and stole it from its perch. He found the thing puny in his hand, like a match held in a human’s pathetic grip. No matter, it should last him at least the half hour until he could go back and find Dar, hopefully with a sack of gold and jewels slung over his shoulder, and maybe a head or two of whatever lived down here and put up these torches.
A stone clattered off the rock in the distance, echoing through the tunnel network. Gax paused for a moment, listening for another disturbance. When none came, he pulled his axe off his back, striking the walls around him more than once, eliciting a wince from him each time. “Dar would’ve stabbed me in the arse for that.”
Gax held his axe tightly to his body, knowing in this cramped corridor that the weapon would be all but useless. Hopefully, when he found whatever moved about the tunnels, he’d also find himself in a larger chamber. A methodic padding sounded from somewhere behind him he was sure, but of course he found nothing over his shoulder. A scrape of wood across stone echoed from somewhere else.
As an orc, Gax didn’t truly need the flame to make his way in absolute darkness, so he silently placed the torch on the ground and continued on, the knuckles of both his hands white as he gripped his axe. His heart beat harder against his chest in anticipation of a fight, though he imagined he’d find himself the cause of a slaughter as he waded through a tribe of knee-high dwarves or some nasty cousin of the like. He stalked onward with a wide grin.
The mouth of the tunnel he traversed was alight with flickering orange. Either a single large fire or multiple torches burned in the room beyond. Gax quietly shuffled to the edge of the tunnel then leaned his head out to look in. He found a larger room than the first open chamber he and Dar had come to, the ceiling almost high enough for him to stand upright without issue. A handful of cots sprawled across the ground here and there in small clusters. Packs, pots, cups, urns, and clothes dotted each small campsite. Some had fires burning low at their middle while a much larger conflagration crackled and popped in the middle of the chamber, heating it to a comfortable degree.
Gax stared at the large fire and squinted, noticing a handful of logs only recently piled atop the flame, still catching across their length and increasing the size of the blaze. Darkness suddenly devoured the light, metal slamming into rock with a series of deafening bangs. Gax caught glimpses of movement, though of what exactly he wasn’t sure. He saw cauldrons or buckets, perhaps, for a brief moment before they covered the few fires in the chamber.
The sudden plunge into darkness after having peered into the blaze for a while stole his darkvision, a large bluish-white blob floating at the center of his sight no matter where he looked. He ducked back into the tunnel and shut his eyes, ignoring the ghost light that still haunted him and using his keen ears to decipher what was happening. More scrapes and thuds and clatters came from the chamber. Wood and metal across stone. It sounded large and heavy, but what giant could fit down these tunnels?
Gax rubbed at his eyes feverishly, though doing so proved fruitless. A long moment passed in relative silence, the only sound a rushing of air like a bellows, or, perhaps, the intake and exhalation of breath from some large beast. Instinct screamed at him to turn and flee, to find Dar before returning here to face whatever might be beyond the corner. Curiosity and recklessness, however, urged him forward.
A faint wisp of blue still marring his vision, Gax crept forward. His shuffling boots matched the cadence of the creature’s breath, muting their sound. He stuck his head around the corner and peered into the dark chamber. He caught glimpses of movement, though he couldn’t pick out whether he looked at a beast that filled the chamber completely or at an army of things.
Metal clanged and light erupted in the chamber, illuminating a squat creature with shining scales, twisting horns, gleaming eyes, and a maw bristling with fangs, each one as long as Gax’s hand. The blaze leapt at Gax, shot from the mouth of the beast like a fireball. Gax yelped, the octave of his voice making him wonder if he had lost a testicle or two. His axe slipped from his grasp as he dove back down the corridor, the menacing visage of the dragon haunting his retreat.
Fire slammed into the wall, blasting Gax with a wave of heat that singed the hair on his face. He choked on smoke and the acrid stench of burnt hair as he pelted back down the corridor. His darkvision still impaired, he failed to notice a bend in the dark tunnel and barely lifted his hands in time to avoid splattering his face on rock. He bounced from the wall, his teeth vibrating from the shock, and staggered away.
“A bloody dragon!” he wheezed. “How in all the hells could it be a dragon?”
Minutes later, he stumbled back into the wide chamber where he and Dar had parted ways. Two steps down the tunnel she’d taken he stopped. A clanking sound, like so much metal armor shifting and crashing together, echoed through the underground chamber. “Dar?” he hissed, again nearly reaching between his legs to ensure he remained fully intact.
The only reply was more rattling and grinding. Was the same beast pursuing him? Perhaps a group of them? But dragons seldom nested together, being the solitary creatures they are. Was an army of squat soldiers coming to investigate the commotion he’d made?
There were far too many variables, and nearly each one had Gax’s gut roiling. He prayed to Axrom that Dar was safe, slapped himself hard in the side of the face for dropping his axe, then turned and fled back up the winding tunnel that led to the surface.
The tunnel vomited Gax out into a cool breeze, washing him in relief. He spun and backed away from the tunnel, praying Dar would appear any moment. All that came from the tunnel was the echoing clank, forcing Gax slowly away.
“Gax!” The orc spun around violently at the call. He rushed toward the edge of the cliff before him, barely skidding to a stop in time to avoid pitching over and tumbling down. Dar stood on a platform fifteen feet below, a burlap sack full to bursting slung over her lithe shoulder.
“Dar,” Gax bellowed, “there’s a dragon in there! A damn dragon!”
Dar’s response was a smirk and a waved hand, beckoning Gax to descend. He didn’t need any more prodding than that. He skipped down the rock face, tripping and crashing on his way down. He landed flat on his face next to his companion, paying the cuts and bruises no mind as he surged to his feet and looked to her incredulously.
“Did you see it? I think there were more than one. We need to run, Dar. Fastlike.”
“Where’s your axe?” she asked calmly, nodding to his shoulder where the handle should have protruded.
“Dropped the damn thing in the tunnels.” Gax’s eyes went to the bag Dar hoisted over her back and stopped. “What’s that?”
“Shit for you to hold,” she said as she swung the bag forward, to crash to the ground. Metal clinked together, muted by the fabric of the bag. “I’m sure you can manage that along with your axe.”
Gax bent down to untie the strings holding the bag closed. “I told you already I lost the thing. Thrice-damned beast scared it out of me hands. What kind of dragon lives in those small caves anyway?”
The strings came loose and Gax tore the bag open, gawking at the slim chainmail armor within, a thin sword resting in its sheathe, and a few items wrapped in oiled leather. “You found the treasure?” he asked, his tone hushed.
The clatter of metal and rocks sounded overhead and Gax stood, pulling the tiny sword from the bag to hold in his hand. How ridiculous he must look, he thought. The blade would likely serve him better as a toothpick.
A diminutive creature appeared atop the cliff Gax had all but fallen down, staring down at him through bushy eyebrows, a wide smile rimmed by a braided beard full enough to hide a small flock of birds within plastered to its ruddy face. “Shoot it, Dar!” Gax bellowed, cocking his arm to throw the sword he held.
“You toss that blade and I’ll shoot you, you pig-screwing idiot,” she snapped.
Gax stopped cold, his face scrunching up with confusion. The dwarf above rumbled a deep laugh as a few others of his kind moved up to flank him, slapping him on the back as they too laughed.
“Tell yer green friend to come back with good trade next time he has a mind to,” called the first dwarf. “Might be we’ll craft him an axe with a strap so he doesn’t leave it behind next time he’s pissing himself and running like a little girl.” Another round of boisterous laughter erupted from the gathered dwarves, more appearing to stare down at Gax, some with tankards in their hands.
A dwarf hefted Gax’s axe, the weapon taller than the small thing was, with practiced ease and tossed it down the cliff side. Gax dropped the sword atop the bag and scurried to get beneath the axe, worried that such a fall would snap its handle or a chunk off its blade. It stopped a handbreadth from his outstretched hands, however, the blade aimed to slam him right in the nose if he failed to pinch it between his hands.
Gax looked past the weapon to the dwarves to see one of them clad in robes swaying gently, brandishing a glowing shield in two hands, upon which was emblazoned the sigil of their god, a hammer with a spiked top silhouetted by a sunburst. “Go on,” said a dwarf. “Hold yer battleaxe.”
Gax eyed the hairy creature warily before reaching out to grasp the axe-head. It suddenly swayed to the side, avoiding his grip. The dwarves again exploded with laughter. Gax tried disintegrating them with his stare, earning nothing but further smiles and cajoling for it.
“Alright, Dagnor,” Dar admonished through a wide smile. “Enough playing at my dumb friend’s expense.”
“If you say so, lady,” the lead dwarf said. His priest nodded and the axe spun around for Gax to swipe its haft from the air. He began to turn around but his axe jerked suddenly, as though trying to escape his grip. He yanked it back and the enchantment ended, him stumbling to his rear end after losing his balance.
“Go suck rocks!” he bellowed at the collected dwarves, riling them to higher levels of back-slapping and wheezing laughter.
Gax stood and swiped the burlap sack and sword then turned and stomped away, spitting at the ground near Dar’s feet. Dar smiled at Gax, waved to the dwarves above, then turned and followed her irate companion.
“What the hells was all that?” Gax barked when she caught up to him. “Those tiny buggers are your friends, living in the rocks with a pet dragon?” Gax lifted the sack. “Did they trade you these pretties for a nice dance or two?”
Dar smacked Gax in the back of the arm, stinging his flesh. “It wasn’t a dragon, you bumbling idiot.”
“Axrom’s balls it wasn’t. I know what I seen there.”
“You saw a machine. Built by the stoneflinger dwarves of this mountain.”
A chord of memory resonated in Gax, stalling his response. “Stonflinger… Why’s that sound familiar?”
“It’s a good thing I traded your stash of wanderer’s moss,” she said, shaking her head.
“You what?” Gax bellowed, stopping altogether, his mouth agape. “I worked my arse off to gather that much! You remember the eagles, and the scratches?” Gax pointed to a scar below his eye.
“Stuff doesn’t grow up here,” she replied with a shrug. “Too little moisture this high up. Stoneflingers love it, though. Wonderful craftsmen, they are. Best smiths anywhere around.” She patted the sack Gax carried.
Gax wanted to rage at her, but that damn persistent ping of a memory hidden just beneath the surface continued to nag at him.
“Gods, you really are that dense,” Dar said. “Gax, last month we were sitting in the Smashed Helm and a few stoneflingers were there. You couldn’t help but gorge yourself on some wanderer’s moss. They noticed and you four instantly became best friends. Don’t you remember?”
Gax stared back blankly, his mind working double-time to overturn the drug-buried memory.
“Shit, man! You got them so high I thought they’d start floating around. The shit you four were saying, and seeing apparently… They talked about their forges and the treasures they’d made, showing off some trinkets and weapons embedded with rubies and sapphires. Your idiot brain took that night and rolled it into some convoluted vision that ended with us finding a hoard of treasure up here. I couldn’t help but go with it.” She grinned wickedly and all the pieces fell into place, the memories snapping back with clarity.
“I found the stoneflingers the next day, before they left,” Dar continued, “and told them how much fun they could have with you. They really could be cousins of yours. If, that is, you weren’t such a giant oaf.”
Gax let his arms go slack at his side, dropping the sack. “So you’re telling me that those puny creatures set all of that up just to get a laugh?” He hooked a thumb over his shoulder. “They went through all that trouble for shits and giggles and are about to have a grand time high on moss?”
“That’s the short of it, aye.”
Gax beamed suddenly, thrusting his hand inside his vest and rummaging around inside a deep pocket. “To the hells with this!” He pulled a pouch of leather the size of his fist out and bit a string to untie it. He held out the open pouch to behold a dried, purple substance. Wanderer’s moss. “I’m going back!”