KASSI AND THE DUNGEON by Ste Whitehouse
 
The dwarf shifted in the dim light, his milky white skin glistening with sweat. Pale eyes as bleached as his skin glanced across at the bodies of his brethren and a snarl escaped softly from thin lips. He was naked except for cotton trousers, and hairless but for a sheen of white down across his scalp. His legs were thick and sinewy beneath a thickset body that stood almost four feet in height.
 
Kassi Seishin adjusted her sword and kept her own eyes upon the squat creature before her. She was a good two feet taller than the dwarf, but down here where gravity was stronger the dwarf’s larger frame assisted him in ways her wiry build did not. Managing that extra weight was hard work and all the dwarf really had to do was be patient. He was adapted to this environment in ways that Kassi was not; besides her armour sat heavily on her. She paused, confident she would not need to wait long. Dwarfs were notoriously impatient.
 
As if on cue he leapt at her, his metallic hammer swinging down and to her right. She caught it easily with the face of her shield and stepped back, bringing her own weapon down in a vicious arc that barely missed the creature. A small line of pale dwarven blood, hardly noticeable against his smooth white skin, opened up, and crystal rivulets mingled with his sweat. He muttered darkly and wiped a sweaty palm dry on his trousers before gripping his large hammer tighter. They circled each other as the sole flame flickered in the long corridor. A pearl of light fading into stygian blackness either side.
 
Kassi eyed the pale silvery blood as it mingled with the dwarf’s sweat. Allegedly, spiced dwarven blood taken with wine was a strong aphrodisiac and fetched a high price in the markets above. It strongly enhanced any number of physical sensations, particularly those below the waist and made sex a lot more intense; so it was said. She was considering the chance of collecting some when her reverie was interrupted.
 
{Sex will be a lot less intense if you are dead, Kassi.} The words intruded deep within her mind.
 
“Sebastian! Don’t break my concentration,” she muttered.
 
{What concentration? You’re thinking about hot dwarf-enhanced sex. Where is the concentration in that?}
 
“Sebastian!” She shouted, just as the dwarf lunged forward. She easily dodged his blow and slammed her shield into his side pushing him into the far wall with a sharp thud. There was heavy silence from Sebastian. “Thank you.”
 
She lifted her shield feeling its extra weight pull her right arm downwards. It had been a good steal, she considered; well worth the quick escape from Ornn and the consequent chase through Seven Fields. It was well balanced, unusually light and seemingly impervious to any sword. All hallmarks of an artefact from ‘The Beginning’. All it really needed was a ‘trey’ to power it. Hence their diversion down into this dungeon, the most likely place to find a ‘trey’. Seeking her brother could wait while they scoured down here for the multi-use black oblongs and of course—according to Sebastian—they were much less likely to meet a band of dwarves in the upper levels; so they had thought. Still, four were dead and their companion would be soon joining them in whatever heaven or hell dwarves believed in.
 
They may hunt in packs but cornered and alone they would fight on; as this one showed. He stumbled to his feet but, despite her weariness, Kassi felt confident. She stood her ground and raised her broadsword as the dwarf began its run towards her. Dwarfs were strong and built like brick outhouses but a good blade could always kill; and Kassi was an excellent blades woman.
 
She shifted her weight onto her right foot and pivoted. He glanced off her shield, hardly slowing as she swept her blade downwards and across his back. This time she felt more than a thin layer of skin under the blades edge. Sinews and even bones crunched and she felt the sword shudder momentarily. The dwarf fell forwards and skidded along the smooth flooring, his soft grunt echoing along the dark passageway. Kassi crept forward as he tried to push himself up, a hand fumbling for his hammer. She pushed her sword down into his back and rested it there for a second. The dwarf screamed, its echo filling the darkness. The effort had caused her to sweat under the thick plated leather armour and she brushed a few loose strands of hair from dark green eyes.
 
Her hair was black and straight, cut to shoulder length and left unadorned. Kassi’s arms and legs were long but muscular with flashes of olive skin peeping through the latticework of tough leather armour. Her face was angular but pretty. The armour she wore fitted her curves closely but no one could doubt the seriousness with which Kassi took her swordsmanship; this was no papery armour to enhance womanly curves—and expose sensuous curves of flesh—but rather solid, battle weary armour. Etched leather shin and arm pads hardened almost to the consistency of steel were tied securely in place; her breastplate woven with steel. The new shield from Ornn was now slung over her shoulder and the large broadsword sheathed at her right side. She bent over, holding her knees, and breathed in deeply. All she needed was a few minute to recuperate. A sound echoed from beyond the sphere of light and she glanced up, trying to peer into the blackness of the corridor. Kassi lifted her scabbarded sword in readiness; holding it steady in front of her.
 
“Really! I was about to swoop in and rescue you.” The voice was low and dripping in sarcasm; sounding almost human despite its origin. “And instead I find a sword in my face?”
 
“A rescue? Ha! Just a thought, Sebastian; but if you had skin I believe it would be yellow,” she replied.
 
A portion of the inky darkness high up on a far wall paled slightly and detached itself from the rest of the blackness, padding softly into the light. Although metal there was a dull sheen to his exterior and his eight limbs moved silently. Only the softest of sounds echoed as each leg deliberately found its place. Two multifaceted lenses gleamed in the dull torchlight as the machine’s small ‘head’ turned to face Kassi. Sebastian swore that he had been built for ‘exterior work’ but the girl had never been able to comprehend what could possibly be ‘exterior’ to the world.
 
“Well, I was not the one thinking about fucking,” he said his voice deep and velvety.
 
The girl sighed and ran a hand along the bulge of wires and articulate tubes that ran down Sebastian’s short neck. Despite what he said, there appeared to be some form of feeling, and he arched his back as if he had been a cat, a soft purr escaping from wherever his voice came.
 
She said, “Well, I hope you were busy whilst I was clearing the corridor for you.”
 
Sebastian shook his head. “Of course, but sorry; no such luck. There are no batteries nearby.”
 
Kassi looked at the creature, puzzled. “Sometimes I find just understanding you a chore, Sebastian.”
 
It was the machine’s turn to sigh. “I found no treys, Kassi.”
 
“Perhaps deeper?” she asked.
 
“That would mean higher gravity and possibly more dwarfs,” Sebastian stated flatly.
 
“Gravity, yes, but perhaps not so the dwarfs. They prefer to cling close to the outer wall. This group may well be scouts of some sort.”
 
“Back at the Southern end of the pipe dwarves did indeed stay close to the surface.” Sebastian said. “But we ran into this bunch on level ten.”
 
“Eleven,” she corrected.
 
“Pardon me?”
 
“We dropped two levels to bypass the circulatory system, remember?”
 
“Level ten or eleven. It does not really matter that much, Kassi. Not if they are up this high. Besides, the longer you’re under this higher gravity or the deeper you go, the heavier you will get; you’ll be at a disadvantage either way.” He lifted a leg and weaved a pattern in the air which the girl recognised as a ‘shrug’.
 
“That’s okay, Sebastian. I hear I have a protector who will rush in and rescue me,” she laughed. The machine unfurled two extremities on the upraised arm and gesticulated at her.
 
“I have TWO rescuers?” she said in a laughing tone.
 
“Sarcasm is...”
 
“...the lowest form of wit; I know; but how come it only ever applies to me and not to you?” She asked.
 
Sebastian sighed, loudly, but ignored her saying with concern in his voice. “Well, three levels more and that’s it. If we don’t find any... treys by then we scarper, okay?”
 
“As you wish.” She stood and caught her bearings then turned towards where the group of dwarfs had come at her; a doorway twenty feet down the corridor. The machine followed, picking up the burning torch in a leg and causing the square cut of the corridor to fill with slabs of shadow, dancing back and forth in the spluttering flame.
 
Without a word they continued onwards. Kassi thought back to the day she first met Sebastian; it was the day she first saw the demons. Creatures alive with sinew and flesh but deep red in colour and with only three fingers on each hand. Their skin scaly and ridged with protuberances; their eyes the yellow of the sunline. Each had stood a good two yards over her even though at seven she was one of the tallest girls in her village.
 
That had been a strange day; and now those self-same demons held her brother at the world’s northern end. She paused and tried to focus on the job at hand. Thinking on her family and their woes would not help down here within the deep dungeons. No! She needed to concentrate and be ready for possibly another group of dwarves. They descended a series of stairs edged by a metal railing. The blackness was complete but she could sense the depth these stairs dropped through. Possibly all the way to level 30 or even this fabled ‘exterior’ of Sebastian’s. Kassi felt gravity build almost imperceptibly. The air was still, but from below there was an appreciable chill; air that had never seen the sunline. She recognised the numbering system still in use above ground.
 
“Sebastian?”
 
“Mmmm?” he said, crawling along the wall, all of his focus on the stygian blackness ahead of them.
 
“You know all these ancient runes; don’t you? I mean you say batteries instead of treys all the time; and all those other long dead words…”
 
“Hmmm.”
 
“This one I see a lot in dungeons such as these. What does it say? Is it some grave warning?”
 
She pointed to a tattered sheaf of laminate. A blue circle enclosed a plump white exclamation mark above a similarly coloured rectangle full of runes. Sebastian studied it carefully.
 
“Health and Safety. Probably the most insidious curse of all,” he replied with an air of ‘something’ in his voice.
 
“Really?”
 
“Yep. Ah’kis’ biggest curse.” She looked at him curiously. The psychic link they shared meant that even when not ‘connected’ she felt something of his emotions and now she thought she detected humour; but before she could say anything, they came to two high wide doors. One was already ajar. From within light spilled out into the stairwell.
 
“Dwarves?” she asked.
 
“I doubt it. They are almost totally blind and spend all their time down at the lower levels, or at least they did so back home. Besides, as I’ve told you many times, I’m rigged with biosensors that can pick up different molecules. I may not be as proficient as a dog but I can sense enough to know that there are no dwarf based odours coming from in there.”
 
Kassi understood enough of Sebastian’s archaic language NOT to ask him to explain—it was better to just nod and hope that what he meant did not involve the difference between life or death sometime soon. She said. “Possibly the cold drove them downwards back at Southend. They wear few clothes and it is pretty warm up top this far north. Conceivably they could venture higher in the dungeons?”
 
“A valid point, Kassi, but probably not so relevant here. Warmth or not, dwarfs dislike light.”
 
They stepped through the doors and entered a high ceilinged cavern that appeared to stretch northwards indefinitely. A series of dim bulbs shone in four rows thirty feet up and vanished at a point possibly miles away. It was at least sixty yards wide. They paused, allowing Kassi to regain a little of her vision after the dimness of the flaming torch.
 
There were similar doors across the vault and Kassi noted pairs of doors either side of the great hall about a hundred yards on and a further hundred yards after that. Other than the two of them the large hall appeared to be empty, although Kassi noticed a slight vibration through the concrete floor as if some heavy animal was nearby, stomping about.
 
“Machinery,” Sebastian stated bluntly.
 
“I thought perhaps a giant.”
 
“In all of our adventures since leaving Brackenwood have you ever seen a giant?”
 
“They say that elves are taller than men,” she retorted.
 
“Taller does not a giant make.”
 
She was about to reply that actually the definition of a giant was its tallness when a pair of doors to the right slid open with a dull scrape of sound and something emerged.
 
Kassi drew her sword and swung her shield into place. Sebastian dodged to the left, dropping the torch and darting into the shadows. Kassi watched as the thing closed in on her. It was big, reaching half as tall as the ceiling, which meant that Sebastian’s ideas about giants might need to be updated. It was also fairly slow, or at least pretending to be so. She heard metal scrape against metal, and as it moved there was the odd dull gleam of something hard and polished. Multiple legs skittered across the flooring and she saw at least three lenses snake out of the top of the thing, each one eyeing her where she stood.
 
{A troll!? Underground? I thought they were creatures found above?}
 
{Perhaps thinking is not what we need to be focused upon just now,} Sebastian said hurriedly.
 
{It appears to be in no haste to reach us,} Kassi replied hopefully.
 
As if hearing her ‘speak’ the Troll picked up speed.
 
“You distract it while I see about disarming it.” Sebastian spoke from somewhere; Kassi could vaguely feel his presence, even the direction he was in, but anything more specific was veiled.
 
“For once I would like to be the one who disarms things,” she whispered but knew exactly where her strengths lay. Dodging and slashing at things came easier than dismantling a troll. Even with no opposable thumb, (as he continually informed her), Sebastian was superb at finding just the right section of wire to cut through with his ‘fingers’. Kassi stepped forward and flexed her legs, standing on the balls of her feet in readiness. The troll moved faster and two rusting girders swung out from its back, vicious hooks attached to both.
 
She waited until the last second and then dived out of the things way, rolling up onto her feet in an instance. Cutting across with her sword, she felt it catch a leg and saw sparks and oil hang momentarily in the air. The troll slowed itself merely by slamming into the wall behind them. Perhaps if they stood each end of the large hall they could wear it out by watching it slam itself to bits.
 
{That would take rather a long time, I suspect. Its carapace looks to be tungsten.}
 
“It’s easing off the leg I hit, so...”
 
She ducked as one of the hooks swung close to her head on a long oil smeared chain.
 
{So it appears to want to keep you as far from them as it can.} Sebastian replied within her head.
 
Kassi hated sarcasm, or at least Sebastian’s. “So a good slash from another direction may help?”
 
{I have my ‘hands’ full up here, Kassi; sorry, lass.}
 
She glanced up to see Sabastian hanging from a second chain as it swung in an arc over the trolls ‘head’.
 
“Sebastian, the wall,” she called out.
 
{I see it.} He dropped from the chain, twisting mid-air to land on all eight legs before dodging two of the troll’s large feet and sliding underneath its main body.
 
{A bit more distraction, luv.}
 
Kassi shook her head silently, then ran forward into view of one of the troll’s snaking eyes. She feigned a left then darted right, catching the creature off guard. The troll swung one of its legs laterally, trying to catch her own legs and knock them from under her, but Kassi jumped at the last second; managing to slash at some ancient jury-rigged tethers that held the leg together.
 
It fell to the ground with a satisfying crash just as she landed and rolled away under the thing. Sebastian was concentrating on a number of loose panels. She smiled to herself as he ‘said’ without turning to look at her. {I am NOT indecisive! If I cut into this thing willy-nilly there may be no usable batteries remaining.}
 
“There may be no usable us remaining.”
 
Three snake-like appendages cluttered around, trying to feel for either of them.
 
{You make a valid point, Kassi.} He slipped a single appendage into a small gap and pulled, metal scraping across metal. The plate buckled at first and then fell away noisily. Two of the arms stopped sweeping. The troll staggered up and took a few steps away before turning to face them; Sebastian hanging on to the thing’s belly for all intents and purposes like a giant spider.
 
“Sebastian?” Kassi shouted.
 
He thrust his appendage in further and she saw his face light up from the circuits as they shorted. A smell of burnt plastic and wiring fanned outwards. Above her the troll continued to move.
 
“Backup treys?”
 
“More likely slow circuits. It has yet to realise it is dead.” Even as he spoke the troll’s movements slowed and he rolled out from underneath it as quickly as he could, just in case. The troll stopped moving, although parts of it whirled and clanged. An arm snaked across the floor blindly and Kassi’s impression was that the behemoth was still somehow alive.
 
“Let’s get the treys quickly,” she said in a whisper, cautious of waking the thing.
 
“You’re preaching to the converted here, luv. Let’s see... There should be a bundle here.”
 
He ripped at a side panel tearing it open with his hardened ‘fingers’. Under a mass of wires and circuits she spied three black oblongs of polymer plastic.
 
Kassi’s more dexterous fingers detached them from the monster and she slipped two into her backpack. The third she slid into the casing in her shield; + against + and - against - just as Sebastian had taught her. A blue light momentarily flared over the shield before extending outwards. Beneath her fingers she felt an array of buttons along the strap and wished they had more time to spend finding out what exactly the shield could do.
 
As though reading her mind—although she knew they were no longer ‘connected’—Sebastian said. “Great. Now can we bugger off out of here, please?”
 
They stepped back into the stairwell.
 
“All the way up?” she asked.
 
“Might as well. After bloody dwarfs and trolls nothing else can annoy us.”
 
“Demons?”
 
“May I say that you are the only human who has seen these ‘demons’,” he said gently.
 
“You’ve seen them in my mind,” she replied quietly. “You know that they are real. They took Kaze.”
 
“And we will get your brother back,” Sebastian replied gently.
 
The stairs eventually opened up into scrubland a mile from where they had first entered the dungeon. Kassi looked towards Northend, still over four thousand miles away. She could see down the narrow pipe that it was night there and the moonline was already on; a pale hoary sliver of the sunline masked by distant clouds. Southwards the sunline was still strong and at Southend itself reflecting off the large mass of snow and ice that was steadily accumulating there, or so she imagined. Southend was almost a thousand miles distant and lost in sunline and clouds, its end most likely a dot for this distance. She and Sebastian had seemed to be travelling for months to reach only this far along the world pipe.
 
Overhead, at the central axis of the pipe world, the sunline was fading and she could now see further around the curve of Ah’kis as it sloped upwards and over. As the dimmer moonline faintly appeared lights were coming on in a village clockwise almost one hundred degrees from them and the woods surrounding it still caught the remains of the light. Even from ten miles away looking almost down at this angle they saw only the tops of the trees and a murmuration of starlings as they flowed like a dark cloud over the trees catching the late evening insects. Further still, around the curve of the pipe, the sunline obscured the opposite floor. It was a cloudless night.
 
Northwards, moonlight caught the tall spires of Circle City, still six hundred miles away and partially hidden by a corkscrew of dull clouds. Beyond it Kassi knew that the dark mass of the Ring Sea circled around and around the world, a broad band of water almost a thousand miles across; and beyond that something akin to lightning arched across the sky at The Spike. Kassi breathed in deeply the spring scents of hyacinths and lilac. She thought of her brother and the distance they still had to travel.
 
“Yes. We’ll find him,” she said.
 
THE END

 

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