KASSI AND THE DUNGEON OF DWARVES by Ste Whitehouse
 
‘The Pipe-world, Ah’kis, is five thousand miles long and just over ten miles in diameter. Kassi seeks her brother who has been kidnapped by ‘demons’ and now travels north to the end of the world. She is accompanied by Sebastian a sentient bot of dubious origins with whom she can communicate telepathically. That ability seems to set her apart from the rest of the world’s population. This is an earlier tale.’
 
 
There had been sixteen at the beginning—seventeen if you included Sebastian which Kassi naturally did even if no one else would—and now there were twelve. Even D’naillë their guide looked worried and he was an actual dwarf. The invitation had appeared innocuous. ‘Wanted; adventurers to help unblock a passageway deep within a Dwarven dungeon. Excellent rates of pay.’ That last bit had attracted more than a fair share of nutters, including—if she were honest—Kassi herself. Making her way on her own was all well and good but she had a handful of coin to her name; and all of it bronze or lesser value. Sebastian may be able to live off the sunline and fresh air but she needed food and the occasional lodgings.
 
She was eighteen summers young and eager to prove herself. That spring had seen her brought down by a magic wand[1] and incapacitated for a month or two. Now summer was almost over and she felt something intangible slipping through her fingers. It was as though she needed to prove herself now or for her fate to be forever lost. Of course four people were now dead and they had barely left the surface. The extra gravity—brought about by what Sebastian called ‘centrifugal force’—slowed them a little but in theory not enough to create a problem. Except. Four lay dead. Kassi had seen death many times before. It was a fact of life on Ah’kis. She had lost a sister when young and did not know of one family in her village who had not lost a child before its fifth birthday. Life was hard. Even harder as a warrior.
 
So the weird and wonderful had gathered and been accepted or rejected by two desolate dwarfs, their petulance only making their albino white faces more exotic. Kassi had of course heard of the qualities of dwarven blood and wondered if that sensuality was inherent in all they did. Still Sebastian and she had been accepted and after a short journey they came upon the opening to the dwarfs’ home dungeon. Sebastian, her companion and constant grit in her shoe, had informed her that dungeon was in fact a misnomer as the dwarfs lived deep within the corridors surrounding Ah’kis but over the past ten years she had come to realise that the mechanoid sprouted a fair bit of nonsense and so ignored him; excited instead to be entering an actual dungeon for the first time.
 
The attack by a swarm of rats when it came was sudden. Two went down immediately followed by a third—a grim pockmarked man gaunt and grey—under a wave of soft flowing bodies. Only one of the twins—a Sigh of some sort—had stopped the tide with some mech which (he said) gave off a scream pitched so that only the rats could hear. That gave the dwarves time enough to open a side door away from the scurrying creatures. The fourth had stepped perilously close to the edge of a large shaft before a large pale night-eagle swooped down and carried him away. His screams had echoed for twenty seven minutes before falling ominously silent.
 
D’naillë made light of the fact that a quarter of their band had gone within the first hour and he was assisted by the peacefulness of the next three hours. In fact Kassi was beginning to chaff a little at the monotony when Sebastian halted suddenly, causing her to stumble over an appendage hovering in mid-move. The mech turned slowly to look behind them. The corridor they now traversed was fairly wide and of average height. It was metal lined yet their boots barely sounded off the rough surface of the floor. Kassi knew enough not to disturb her friend as he scanned around them. Whatever he was looking for—or had sensed—he would inform them soon enough.
 
Sebastian in fact did not say a word; instead a tall man whose skin was as black as the night suddenly stood still. He was last in line and if Sebastian had not stopped Kassi would not even have noticed. The tall thin black man stood preternaturally still as though he had been turned to stone—albeit a type of stonework that was altogether life-like. Smoke slipped from some vent and moved lazily through the air; drifting on unseen currents around the man. Then his form shimmered as though some great expanse of heat had risen between him and the group bending the light.
 
Even as she watched, Kassi was aware that his body seemed to be disappearing into a mist. Its shape and form gave the impression of melting or fading. A slight redness of the mist clouded his face until the pale whiteness of bone shone through. The mist itself thickened and Kassi thought that she heard a soft buzz as though a swarm of bees had entered the corridor. A wave of unease emanated from her friend.
 
“Shit! Nanobots!” Sebastian muttered.
 
The rest of the group were still only partially aware of what was happening. A second man, a boy in reality, froze and like the first visibly melted into nothing the mist swirled around the second.
 
“MOVE!” someone screamed and a loud explosion echoed, almost deafening Kassi. A slug of metal rebounded off the walls and ricocheted back and forth. She felt Sebastian’s ‘arm’ fold over her, pulling her away from the men—man; only one body was in view now.
 
The mechanoid called out. “Don’t shoot. The walls are magnetised to support the nanobots and power them. Firing a gun, a wand, in here will only get one of us killed.”
 
{Magnetism!} She ‘heard’ her friend exclaim. {That could actually work!}
 
They followed the dwarfs around a corner and found a dead-end. Someone whimpered. Kassi was almost sure it may have been her until she saw one of the dwarfs shit himself in terror. Oddly the only thought that registered in that moment was that it was the same colour as hers.
 
“Show me the gun,” Sebastian demanded. “The WAND!”
 
Reluctantly the burly knight in chainmail handed the weapon to Sebastian. “Yes. Yes. We can use the magnets.” He looked up and only Kassi could see the gleam of panic in his visual sensors. “Rip up the flooring. Find the magnets. Hurry.”
 
Dubiously the remaining ten pulled open the thin sheets of metal, using whatever came to hand. Kassi used the rim of her metal edged shield, hammering it into the floor where two sheets of metal ran against each other. Underneath she found a handful of small cylinders. She was aware behind of a faint buzz as the now larger cloud of nanobots hovered ever closer.
 
“Why are they doing this?” one of the twins asked; Gerant or Garrent she never could tell which.
 
“On a molecular level nanobots may be fashioned out of purely inorganic metals or organic compounds. Obviously this lot are either fully organic or else most likely have need for organic chemicals to reproduce.”
 
Nine pairs of eyes looked at Kassi for interpretation. She shrugged and said. “I know as much as you do.”
 
Sebastian sighed loudly and replied in what Kassi recognised as his ‘can-these-people-be-any-stupider’ voice. “They eat humans to create more bots. Hence the cloud is denser.”
 
A few faces flickered with understanding and some nodded their heads as though it was all so clear. Kassi merely wrenched a second section of wall away to reveal more magnets.
 
“Now hold those sections of metal up before you. The magnets will prevent the cloud of bots coming near. Then you...” Sebastian pointed at the burly knight again holding the large blunderbuss rifle gently in his arms. “... you fire at the cloud while we push the bots closer. Understood?”
 
Everyone nodded stiffly; all aware of the cloud of nanobots now filling their only way out. All knowing that there was no escape.
 
In the ensuing stillness Kassi stepped forward, a section of flooring in hand. The mist thickened away from the sheet and tried to flow over and around. The other members of the group, seeing that Sebastian had been correct, were suddenly galvanised into action. They surrounded the nanobots pushing them closer until the air was thick with their stench; oil and sweat.
 
The knight raised his wand and fired. The thick pellet rammed into the glutinous gel of bots and sped out the other side, just missing the tall red haired woman who wore very little. As though in slow motion Kassi could see the blooming of a pressure wave within the thickened morass of nanobots; a sphere rippling outwards from the path of the bullet. The cloud of bots dissipated, a fine grey powder drifting to the floor.
 
“Quickly! We may not have much time.” Sebastian exhorted the group.
 
“Wait!” D’naillë called from the end wall. “We brought you this way because there is a hatchway leading deeper underground.” He looked around embarrassed, trying to disguise his words as he whispered. “Access One Zero Alpha; Priority.”
 
They waited impatiently as nothing happened.
 
The pale dwarf coughed and repeated the words slightly louder.
 
Sebastian added—unhelpfully. “I only suggested we leave swiftly because not all the nanobots will have been destroyed. A handful could still infect one of us and then begin the cycle of alteration again.”
 
Kassi noted the slight shift in his ‘head’ and a softening of his lenses; a sign that he was smiling nervously. Of course it went over everyone else’s heads.
 
The dwarfs both took it calmly by screaming at the door together, ACCESS ONE ZERO ALPHA PRIORITY! again and again.
 
Sebastian heaved a silent sigh and pushed them apart, lifting one appendage—now becoming a hand rather than a leg—and probing the panel gently with thin filaments. “Ah; I see the issue.” He gently pulled his ‘hand’ away and then smashed it into the panel. A few sparks erupted drifting in the stale air before a door slowly creaked open. Even the blind would have recognised the broad ‘smile’ that emanated from the mech’s smooth featureless ‘face’.
 
A second later there was a scrum of flesh as seven humans and two dwarfs squeezed through the still wheezing doorway, leaving Kassi waiting. Inside there was little metal—apart form a handrail that followed a set of concrete steps downwards. At least the nanobots could not follow them.
 
“The way is down here,” D’naillë said more firmly this time, regaining his composure.
 
An hour later they were still descending and Kassi’s back hurt as well as the muscles in her thighs. Gently her weight had increased as they passed the two mile mark below ground, and gradually each step—no matter that it was downwards—became a chore. Her mind was almost blank from the boredom. It began to shift and at least once she thought she had heard her mother call her for lunch.
 
‘Why did your weight increase?’ she wondered. Sebastian had told her that Ah’kis was a tube of rocky asteroids flying through a void he called space and that it rotated, so creating centrifugal force, but Kassi had a hard time imagining something other than her world. Some philosophers thought that the sun-line far above them was the answer; that light was in fact light—or lighter.
 
Their bodies absorbed the light and that kept them at a certain weight but when they descended the depths of a dungeon—or what Sebastian called corridors—this lack of light caused people to put on weight. The deeper you went, the less light made it down here and hence the heavier you became. It ‘sounded’ right but Kassi was unsure. For a start she knew full well that light did not penetrate underground at all. Sometimes all you needed to do was walk ten steps and there was no sun-line visible, and what happened indoors at night? Besides Dwarfs LIVED underground and yet they never became heavier because of it. No one did. She bumped into the man in front who had stopped suddenly and was aware that D’naillë was speaking.
 
“... to be as quiet as possible. There are Trolls along the length of the passageway.”
 
“Trolls? Why the worry?” the old man with a limp asked.
 
The dwarf grimaced and replied, “The Trolls you see above ground are mostly accustomed to men and are thus tamed but down here many have become much ... wilder.” The second dwarf said something quietly in D’naillë’s ear. “Yes, they are also prone to experiment with body shapes and forms more than their cousins above.”
 
Kassi had seen many Trolls working the fields of Ah’kis. Some had modified chassis; some had even reduced their overall tonnage, but bar ‘Old Cid’ none had been dangerous.
 
{Many have limited positronic brains which means that they remain only vaguely sentient, but the creation of pathways is always a veiled science, with vague outcomes. It is possible that over the millennia some may have descended into madness.}
 
{Well THAT’S cheerful!} Kassi replied.
 
The other dwarf softly opened the door way. Over his head Kassi could see a vast stretch of corridor wide and tall. Strip lights like miniature sun-lines illuminated the space badly. As she entered she could just sense the buzz of the lights as four or five flickered dispassionately far above.
 
“Buggeration!” D’naillë exclaimed.
 
Far enough away from them that it was almost a blob of shadow a bulky Troll sat waiting dead centre of the corridor. If they needed to cross this part of the dungeon then the Troll stood defiantly in their way.
 
The ten huddled together, waiting for someone to make a decision. Nothing moved and Kassi looked around nervously. Surely only a confident predator would sit so openly waiting? What was to stop the group, or any other prey, from just stepping back through the small doorway? Sensing something, Kassi peered upwards. The ceiling was shrouded in darkness, but suddenly she was aware of how a cluster of lights was damaged just around the entrance. Something shifted in the darkness and she had enough time to call out and warn people before a thin tentacle snaked downwards and circled the older man’s neck.
 
People darted outwards as three other tentacles wavered across the door at their back. They were trapped. The thickset woman, Barnabi, thundered and swung her own wand upwards, but instead of bullets a river of flame flowed upwards, illuminating the darkness above them. Even as the flames roared Kassi heard the sound of the old man’s neck breaking, a sharp retort almost swamped by the sound and fury of the flames.
 
Above them a number of small mechanoids sat clinging to the ceiling. A dozen or more had thin elongated tentacles which whipped back and forth whilst others dropped rocks onto the group below. The woman’s flame arched across a swathe of them and Kassi thought that she heard screams from the machines; and the smell of burnt flesh. One machine fell at her feet and she could see that it was a collection of machine and animal—mostly rat, it seemed.
 
She called out for everyone to stop and gather together. “It WANTS us to panic, to spread out away from each other. That way it can take us on one by one,” she explained.
 
“Have you seen the size of that thing?” one of the younger men said, a look of fear in his black eyes.
 
“Well,” Kassi retorted. “As a woman I’ve come to understand that the size of a thing usually means nothing.” She smiled sweetly.
 
“Well dahling, if you and your ... machine were to draw it away, I’m sure Gavin and myself could handle it,” the barely dressed woman replied, her red hair almost alive in the flickering embers of dying flames. She patted the young man’s arm and he briefly stood a little taller, his chest puffed out a little more.
 
“We can do much better than that,” Sebastian said politely.
 
{We can!?} Kassi asked silently.
 
{A little snipping here and there should leave our large opponent powerless.} Sebastian replied as silently.
 
“Okay,” she replied and ran forward calling to the others. “Stay back, and for the god’s sake stay together.”
 
{Okay, a little plan here would help.} she said.
 
{Well I thought that you could ...}
 
{Yes?}
 
{Run at it hacking away and I can then sneak underneath somehow and hopefully find a few wires I can snip.}
 
{Somehow; hopefully? THAT does not sound like a plan.} Kassi replied.
 
{I never claimed to be a tactician. You are the one who says how marvellous she is at fighting. Oh shit.}
 
{What’s the matt ...?}
 
She saw instantly that the Troll sat upon two large tracks that stretched alongside its body. ‘Underneath’ was about one inch in height.
 
“What is that smell?” Kassi asked.
 
“Burnt petrol. This Troll runs on petrochemicals so little in the way of batteries.”
 
She understood that Sebastian meant treys, usually a flat oblong of black plastic from which Sighs drew energy.
 
“So no wire snipping?” she asked.
 
“IF we can get close enough we may be able to cut a fuel line. Spilled petrol burns quite effectively.”
 
“So let’s get close enough.”
 
Kassi leapt up at the Troll, somersaulting through its large pincers and landing on one of the large rubber tracks. Sebastian dropped back moving to the other side of the creature as it swung its largest appendage at the girl. There was a burst of noise and a shift deep within the Troll as it began to spin its left track, trying to unbalance her, but she was already clambering upwards.
 
The Troll was, as all Trolls were, a collection of parts. Disconcerting for Kassi was the fact that this Troll’s parts included creatures that had at one time lived. Rats, mice, even a few cats and dogs all seemed to have become incorporated into the Troll. Tubes pierced furred bodies and she caught herself almost stopping in fascination as multi-coloured liquids were pumped in and out of obviously dead bodies.
 
{It may have upped its neural net using the brains of these animals.} Sebastian added as way of explanation. Kassi did not reply, her mind was almost incoherent with horror, and besides what COULD she say to that?
 
Instead she dug her sword into the Troll’s side and pulled haphazardly at a plate before moving on. A smaller arm swept past the spot she had occupied a second before as the Troll tried to dislodge her from its side. She dropped down suddenly and cut through a dozen tubes, filling the air with an acrid, dewy smell that leant itself to thoughts of rotting leaves and autumn nights.
 
As Kassi distracted the Troll, Sebastian leapt upwards and began to copy his friend’s approach; dislodging plates of metal and plastic to expose either flesh, tubes or wiring. Wherever he could the mech tore quickly, hoping to find something, anything, important. The tall redhead with her male companion jumped forward, parrying at the Troll and confusing it. The woman was quick on her feet, dodging left and right, and even managed to strike one of the Trolls arms ineffectually. Inspired the two dwarfs ran forward—although not TOO far forward—yelling and waving their arms and the stout woman fired her flame-thrower at the Troll, almost hitting the young man.
 
Kassi found a dozen lengths of thick tubing running beneath the Troll’s back and managed to slice through them before its larger arm swatted at her. It caught her shoulder and she was momentarily knocked off her feet. The smell of lubricants and hydraulic fluid filled the air and Kassi rolled away sliding off its back and hitting the ground running.
 
She called out, “It’s back. Hit its back with fire.” Before rolling out of the way of an arm. The woman lifted her wand, just as Sebastian dropped away, and sent a stream or burning flame in an arch that ended partially over the Trolls back. Kassi waited a few seconds and then whopped with delight as its back flickered with flame. The Troll started towards her but its right tread froze and it spun in a circle. Kassi ran around the Troll and backed away along the wide tall corridor.
 
The others joined her, one of the older men limping from a wound caused by the Troll’s earlier attack. A cry, part machine part animal, rose. First as a moan and then a screech. It reverberated from wall and ceiling; a death knell that sent shudders through the group. Then the flames billowed outwards, scorching the air along the ceiling for the briefest of seconds before shading into acrid smoke. A thud sounded by Kassi’s side and she saw a rotting, melted piece of twisted metal. Part of the Troll’s defence system from the ceiling; obviously they had been kept ‘alive’ by the Troll and now were little more than inert metal and fur chandeliers. Other thuds sounded around her and someone screamed.
 
“The lights! There are no traps around the lights!” Sebastian cried out and the group hurried beneath the small islands of light that shone down from the tall ceiling. There were five of them, plus the dwarfs and Sebastian. The young male companion to the red-haired woman was not amongst them. They had lost another three.
 
Despondent, they followed the dwarfs through a large pair of doors at the end and along long narrow corridors and large caverns. They walked on in heavy silence, dimly aware of the changing face of their surroundings as the symmetrical cut walls gave way to roughhewn passageways and dank, dew-stained floors. Slowly, as they continued ever downwards, the regular square walls gave way to true caverns and the straight corridors became twisted and fractured. They neared one of the world’s famed underground rivers which pumped water from north to south, from Circular Sea to the mountain-tops of Quellm. As they soldiered on they all became aware of a dull roar from somewhere ahead of them. (The rivers also fed, or so Sebastian had said, the great reservoirs of water that surrounded Ah’kis and protected it from outside radiation.)
 
As they walked the young woman fell into step with Kassi.
 
“That was quite brave of you, dahling. Utterly fantastic. Ah would not have thought it possible with so much ... armour.” She smiled sweetly at Kassi but underneath the smile was a steel façade.
 
“Hardened leather,” Kassi replied. “Almost as tough as steel but weighs much less.”
 
“I can understand that but you made that leap look so effortless, honee.” She indicated her own voluptuous body. “Ah am afraid this could never have done something like that.” She held out a hand whilst flicking back her long red bangs. “Dread Sonja.”
 
“The form said that your name was Penelopi,” Sebastian said sardonically.
 
The girl looked surprised.
 
“He’s a nosey bastard, always peering over people’s shoulders and looking into things that aren’t his concern,” Kassi answered, taking the girl’s hand and shaking it curtly.
 
“Ah admit to taking the name from a book with many pictures. Ah did feel that Penelopi was less fearsome.”
 
The two women walked on side by side in silence for a while; a stark contrast to each other. While Kassi was garbed in full leather armour with round buckler and heavy broadsword Dread Sonja wore a... well the best Kassi could describe it was a chainmail bikini that hardly contained the girl’s ample breasts and left little to imagine below, either. A long sword swung a little too easily at her side and Kassi suspected that it was lightweight and insubstantial; suitable only for show. Sonja’s only weapon appeared to be a man’s inability to strike such pretty smooth skin.
 
“I ah...” Sonja stumbled over the words as she spoke softly. “I am perhaps not as experienced as yourself. And so ah wondered if perhaps you would offer me protection if we are attacked again.” She laughed somewhat nervously. “I appear to have forgotten my other armour this day.”
 
“And your shield, basic medical kit, helmet, secondary weapon, bedding, canteen...”
 
Kassi gave Sebastian a look and he stopped speaking. Then she said. “The tall pale man has a mean look in his one good eye and has made no attempt to speak to anyone at all, Mazack is injured and Barnabi….”
 
“…Has little fluid left to power her wand,” Sonja answered softly.
 
{I noted this woman’s behaviour earlier. She appears to pair with the one she considers strategically superior and offers little in return.} Sebastian ‘said’ angrily.
 
“So I’m all that’s left?”
 
Sonja nodded silently, looking with sudden interest at the floor.
 
“I am good with a sword. It’s just that no one ever takes me seriously enough.”
 
Dressed like that I’m not surprised, Kassi thought before saying. “Then you make them take serious notice of you.”
 
Sonja spun around as though basking in hidden sunlight, a broad smile on her full lips. “But people NOTICE me.... as a woman. Don’t you get mistaken for a man?”
 
Kassi’s reply was lost as they turned a corner and the cavern opened up, rising above their heads by hundreds of yards and all of that space was filled with the deafening roar of a mighty river. The walls were slick with a bioluminescent moss and the whole place had an ethereal essence, apart from the shuddering sound of the river as it sped its way from pole to pole. The water itself held light as it rushed along its granite channel. Streamers of blue and green momentarily pulsated to some unheard tune and Kassi noted dark shapes swim across the ribbons of light. Life, as always, found a way to exist.
 
In the smothering roar of water the two dwarfs indicated a narrow pathway, hurrying the small group onwards. Ahead the sound subtlety changed and as the pathway rose and fell like some frozen wave caught in rock, Kassi could see the river open up before them. They twisted around the heavy slick rock to suddenly find the vast river tumbling downwards over a mile; a vast waterfall taller than most mountains. Its sound was swallowed up by the enormous basin that it had carved out over the centuries.
 
They followed the pathway along a narrowing gorge as the group descended nearer to the white water frothing below them. As they neared, all became aware of a scent that caught in their throats.
 
“What IS that smell?” Sonja asked pinching her nose in distaste.
 
D’naillë smiled nervously. “All of Ah’kis’ waste needs to go somewhere to be R’syk-auld. Once there were mighty machines to do such work, but now…” He hesitated for a second. “Now some dwarven tribes R’syk-aul. It is contentious. A dwarf doing what once was a machine’s job. They are seen as.... lesser dwarfs.”
 
“But if the work was not done?” Sebastian asked.
 
“It is true that many of the mighty rivers would become little more than cesspits,” D’naillë admitted ruefully. He added quickly. “Relations between our tribe and the tribe that inhabits this region are fraught.”
 
As if to illustrate that fact, a cry could be heard from across the gorge and a large band of dwarfs swarmed over the rough terrain, shouting and pointing at their group.
 
“By fraught you mean, murderously awful?” Kassi asked.
 
The dwarf nodded remorsefully.
 
“There’s a bridge!” the large woman said, pointing to an arch of rock that joined the two sides of the chasm together. Kassi looked at her companions in the forlorn hope that they had recruited another hundred or so people whilst strolling along the river’s edge. Sadly it was still Mazack (who hobbled along desolately), Barnabi, Sonja, the pale man and Kassi herself. At least she had seen an actual dwarven dungeon, she thought morosely to herself before Sebastian spoke to her telepathically. She nodded.
 
“You hurry along the pathway. We’ll hold them off,” she said. Five faces looked at her as though she were mad. Perhaps she was, she thought but she trusted Sebastian and so ran for the bridge of rock. They reached the arch of rock—which was surprisingly wide when seen close up—just as the first of the dwarfs reached their end.
 
Sebastian raced forward whilst Kassi jumped about, yelling and generally drawing attention to herself. A flood of bodies poured over the bridge, screaming obscenities and spinning small neat slings. A rain of pebbles fell around the girl but she stood her ground as Sebastian reached the narrowest section of rock, hesitated and then ran back towards his friend.
 
Suddenly he paused and turned. With a prompt by the mechanoid, Kassi ran back onto the thick rocky ledge as Sebastian raised himself up onto his back four legs and shouted out so loudly that his voice echoed around the tall cliffs that enclosed them. The girl heard a soft voice in her head say with amusement. {I have always wanted to do this.} before he spoke.
 
“You SHALL NOT pass!”
 
A second passed and Kassi wondered if her friend’s plan would work, but then she saw a ball of red blossom outwards from where Sebastian had paused and a crack like thunder filled her head. Sebastian was already running back to her as the middle section of the bridge collapsed in the explosion. They slowly walked over to the rest of the group who had stopped in amazement, the two dwarfs looking pissed.
 
“You had no right to do that,” D’naillë said searching his rucksack. “We will need the sacred flower of force later to secure the blockage.”
 
Sebastian tossed a wedge of Semtex at the dwarf. “I did not need to use all of the explosive.” He emphasised the last word. “So we’ll have plenty left for whatever this blockage is.” If a machine could smile then Sebastian was positively glowing.
 
“But how did you know we had the sacred flower?” the dwarf asked, nervously replacing the slab of Semtex.
 
“He is inordinately nosey,” Kassi said.
 
“My chemical sensors picked up traces,” Sebastian replied at his most gracious. “And when I saw the problem with the bridge it seemed the perfect solution. Of course, I could have left well alone and allowed the two of you the honour of fighting your brethren.”
 
The two dwarves looked chagrined but thankful as, neither had a fighter’s physique. They moved on. Miles of cavern passed slowly until eventually D’naillë paused and told them to make camp for the night; such as it was. The low illumination that originated from their surroundings made sleep difficult and although Kassi was aware that Sebastian would guard them more than adequately she still found herself lying awake, staring at the rocky ceiling yards above them.
 
“You all can’t sleep either, sugah?” The redhead slid alongside her and Kassi felt a momentary annoyance. Sonja continued. “We all thought that the two of you had gone mad.” Then she whispered, her voice low and throaty. “Did your ... uh friend discover where the dwarfs keep the coins? Ah mean; they’ve been good at avoiding death so far but who knows what tomorrow may bring and if we needed to leave without them, well...” She looked Kassi in the eye. “Why leave without the coin, eh?”
 
Kassi felt irked as the woman had only echoed what she had asked Sebastian earlier. Somehow she felt that she ought to be ‘better’ than some floozy. She wanted to tell Sonja that they were there to help, but then the real reason she and Sebastian had volunteered was the promise of gold. Kassi hated been confronted by her own failings and would normally have snapped at the redhead if the rest of the group had not been asleep. As it was, she smiled as sweetly as she could and said, “I’m sure when the time comes that you will be rewarded for all you have brought to the group.”
 
“Hey!” Sonja whispered as harshly as she dared. “I bring plenty. If not for me neither Gerant nor Garrent would have committed to this adventure. I persuaded them.” She held her chin up defiantly, her ample cleavage fairly quivering.
 
Kassi did not have the energy to reply that both were now dead along with the lad Sonja had then settled on.
 
As though sensing Kassi’s thoughts the woman added. “I will admit that I may encourage certain men to help me and that dressed thus it is easier.” She flicked her hair back as if emphasising the point. “I did start out to be a warrior but then I met this barbarian type who took a shine to me and sort of did most of the fighting. It just became a habit.” She sighed softly. “I guess I suck at this.”
 
Kassi inwardly rolled her eyes, trying hard not to feel sorry for the young woman. “Hey. We don’t have many role models. I’ve met just one woman fighter and she was encased in so much armour it was hard to tell. Perhaps there are more out there. In the end all we can do is be the best at who we are. I would never wear such ... armour, but if you are unscathed then it works for you.”
 
“Thank you.” She squeezed Kassi’s hand warmly. “Does that mean if things go awry you’ll help me?”
 
Kassi smiled and said yes even as the words Brazen and Hussy echoed in her mind from somewhere north of the camp. Sonja rolled over and within a minute a gentle snore came from her. Kassi sighed, lay back and tried to think of better nights.
 
The next morning Mazack lay dead in his blankets. His body was still warm, meaning that he had died only recently, but although both Kassi and Sebastian examined him closely they could see no real cause of death.
 
“He was crippled anyway,” Barnabi said briskly whilst the tall pale man said nothing, his eyes looking away.
 
{The bastard killed him.} Kassi said vehemently.
 
{To which we have no proof. It’s possible he was strangled or smothered but I can see no markings to indicate as such.} He lay a ‘hand’ gently across the back of Kassi’s calming her. {He WAS slowing us down.}
 
{And the redhead is fucking useless, so is Barnabi if we’re honest. That does not mean...}
 
Sebastian soothed Kassi as best he could while the others guiltily packed. In silence they left the man, his body buried beneath a handful of rocks and gravel; a sad end to a life.
 
It was an hour later that the essence of the river still flowing to their right changed. Slowly a grimy froth began to appear on its surface and larger objects protruded from its depth. Things could be seen floating past, spinning or stopping against larger obstacles until the river became subsumed beneath the detritus; an underground river now flowing under a roof of human waste.
 
The smell grew more pungent until it became so overpowering that it was a physical thing assaulting their bodies. The air felt thick and rancid, clinging to them with each step. The dwarves had provided masks to filter the worst but these did nothing to stop the smell. Surprisingly after a while they all stopped noticing it. Five miles on they found the blockage; a large dirty white plug growing around a narrowing in the river.
 
“It’s a fatberg,” Sebastian said in astonishment.
 
“A what?” Dread Sonja asked scratching at her bare skin as the smell seemed to blanket her.
 
“A fatberg. A collection of fats and oils and...well, things. They can clog up the best of pipes; even here in this world. I guess shifting this will make us plumbers.” For some reason Sebastian found this funny although Kassi couldn’t understand why.
 
D’naillë asked, “Do you think that the sacred flower of force, See Tex, will work?”
 
Sebastian took in the fatberg microscopically. “If we place the charge in the right place it should dislodge a large portion of it.”
 
All six made their way to the blockage. Barnabi used the remaining fluid to burn much of the outer shell of fats away while Kassi and Sonja dug away with the dwarfs and the pale man. An hour passed. Two. Finally a narrow passage was formed, through which Sebastian could traverse with the Semtex. The four humans with dwarfs moved back and away from the river channel, climbing the slippery bank up towards the safety of the high ridge, Kassi bringing up the rear.
 
When they were almost at the ridge Kassi saw Barnabi swing out, holding on with her left hand, a dagger in her right. Her arc brought the dagger across the thin man’s arm and he let go in shock. All at once he was unbalanced. He grasped fruitlessly at the rock face before falling silently down the cliff face, his body slamming into the rocks in sickening squelches. Suddenly Kassi saw the lack of any real intelligence in his eyes. She understood his silence was due to muteness and a barely functioning mind. The evil she had sought within him was in fact plain to see in the plump woman now swinging her sharp dagger at Kassi’s head.
 
She pulled herself level with the woman, grasping a tuft of pale yellow grass in her right hand.
 
“You killed Mazack,” she said flatly.
 
“More profit for me.” Despite her weight the woman was deft with a knife. Only their precarious situation prevented the woman from fully engaging Kassi in swordsmanship. She laughed and taunted Kassi, nodding at her struggle to hold onto the rock face with her right hand, “You’re at a disadvantage, dearie.”
 
“And you’re unobservant luv,” Kassi retorted.
 
The woman looked momentarily puzzled.
 
“I’m left handed,” Kassi said parrying the small blade and sweeping her broadsword neatly across the women’s stomach. For a second everything was still, the woman unmoving, and then, as though she moved through treacle Barnabi slowly slipped from the rock face and tumbled downwards, bouncing across spines of granite, screaming as she fell.
 
{I see you’ve started without me.} Kassi saw Sebastian in the distance.
 
{She killed the pale man right before my eyes. What else was I to do?}
 
Before he could answer the ground shuddered, followed by a dull retort. The waxy surface of oils and fat ballooned before collapsing in on itself. A putrid smell wafted gently over them.
 
“Is that it?” Kassi asked. The destruction of the bridge was much more satisfying.
 
“The blockage is mostly removed, the pressure of water should clear out the debris within a month or so,” Sebastian said pedantically as he climbed the incline with ease passing her and the dwarfs in minutes.
 
When Kassi reached the top Sonja stood hands on hips staring down the dwarfs. “And I say that we should get ALL the coin you have; as recompense.”
 
D’naillë squirmed uncomfortably. “And as I said, we cannot pay you for all sixteen people.”
 
Kassi walked over and said flatly. “Because you figured a lot of us wouldn’t survive so you only brought a fraction of the money. How much?”
 
The dwarf looked at the ground in dismay, whispering, “Five. We brought coin for five of you.”
 
Kassi looked across at the redheaded woman and said, “Well, I reckon we both come out with two and a half times the amount of money you promised us, so that’s not too bad.”
 
Sonja looked annoyed but muttered her agreement. “As long as we are paid NOW!” she added.
 
“So if sixteen warriors started out and only two remain how many will it take for us to reach the surface? Because payment is academic if we do not,” Sebastian said cheerfully.
 
“There is an elevator close by. An hour’s walk at most. That will take us much of the way and, most crucially, it will deposit us within our tribe’s territory,” D’naillë said sullenly as he handed over the coins.
 
Kassi held her sword under his chin. “And why could we not have used this ‘elevator’ to bring us UNHARMED to this place?”
 
A look of terror filled the dwarf’s face as he stuttered. “We ... we did not kn... know where the actual blockage was. It is but by chance we can leave easily. I swear, milady.”
 
At the last word Sebastian sniggered until Kassi gave him a ‘look’.
 
The five adventures slowly made their way back and, despite the decrepit look of the beast, the lift—as Sebastian insisted on calling it—worked fine. Once on the surface Kassi made Sebastian promise that if she ever suggested a dungeon again he was to lock her up. He agreed too readily for her liking but she was much too tired to really care. At least she had coin to spend.
 
THE END

 

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