The skritt lead us deeper into their dark tunnels. The rocky path twisted and turned so erratically that I quickly lost track of my metal map. The deeper we descended the quicker my heart drummed, and I couldn’t help but grasp Stalk’s fur with my sweaty hands. The deep underground reminded me of the all too familiar Nightmare caves.
‘What’s wrong with you, sprout?’ the charr, Farkuz, asked. ‘You’re twitcher than a skritt near shinnies.’
Despite his low tones every ear of the surrounding skritt twitched and a few looked around. Farkuz let out a short hacking laugh.
‘I love doing that,’ he muttered.
‘We shouldn’t be going this deep,’ I hissed. ‘It’s dangerous, especially since we are letting them be our guides,’ I said casting a suspicious eye over the skritt.
‘What, you think they’re leading us into a trap?’ he said, louder than I liked. He waved his big paw dismissively. ‘They’re skritt, a trap would require planning. They’d kill us on the spot if they wanted to. Besides, what reason would they have to?’
I didn’t answer. I suppose we had not given the skritt a reason to dislike us, but then again, the Nightmare Court had taught me that they did not need a reason to hurt you.
The tunnel began to widen and from ahead I could hear chittering, mingled with the scuffling of pawed feet and the chinking of metals. Suddenly the passage opened up and I caught my breath as I gaped at the massive underground cavern. It was perhaps a hundred meters high and at the top was a large opening that bathed the chamber in natural light. In the center was a large clearing, like a village center with a flat-topped boulder that seemed to serve as a primitive podium, which was surrounded by large mismatched, metallic erections . As we passed the first skritt structure, Farkuz paused. It was easy to see that the buildings had been made from all sorts of salvaged metals.
‘This metal panel is from a charr war machine!’ Farkuz exclaimed, raking his claws through his mane in disbelief. ‘How on Tyria did they get it this far out?’
As they lead us further into the cavern other skritt emerged from the structures squeaking and chattering, their saucer eyes glittering with curiosity. Soon we were completely surrounded. They kept a cautious distance from us and if one wandered to close for comfort Stalk barked warningly.
The elder skritt finally stopped in the center clearing and behind him were two oversized asura golems. Unlike the two I had previously seen, these golems were in very bad shape. Cracks and dents covered their chipped and dusty surfaces, and even their power crystals cracked dully as the energy leaked from them.
The elder skritt with the damaged eye pointed a long nailed finger at the golems.
‘Cave in broke golems, you are not asuran,’ he said, his head twitching to one side. ‘But charr sometimes fix well enough. If you fix, we will show you the way out.’
My eyes flickered over the golems doubtfully. They looked completely broken. However, Farkuz’s fur bristled with anger.
‘Charr fix good enough? We may have not invented the golem, but that’s only because we can do our own rudy work!’ he snapped. He stomped over to the golems and began reefing them around angrily as he inspected them. ‘I can fix these pieces of junk better than the asura made them! I’ll show you good enough!’ There was a flurry of skritt and suddenly Farkuz’s stolen tools appeared beside him. So engrossed in his work, was the charr, that he didn’t even make a comment.
Many of the skritt stayed to watch the charr work, including the leader with the damaged eye. They kept a distance from us, but soon many dawdled away, apparently bored. I tried to help but Farkuz barked that I would “only get sap everywhere.”
The skritt didn’t seem to be guarding us anymore, and I took the opportunity to explore while Stalk rested by Farkuz. The whole cavern seemed to be a junk yard. Almost everything was broken or damaged. The skritt used strange asuran gismos that whirled and crackled as lights in dark corners, and charr and human metals were apparent in all the skritt structures. As I wandered around I quickly realized the skritt structures were homes, and the giant cavern; a village. Skritt skittered around; cleaning, sorting through piles of junk, kit were darting through the dirt streets as they played, some skritt were just sitting in groups conversing. I assumed they were conversing. Sometimes it just sounded like a high pitched buzzing hum.
‘You have strayed far from charr,’ a high pitched voice said from behind me. I turned to see the elder skritt behind me. His scarred eye glistened in the dull sunlight and it struck me how odd creatures of flesh healed. His scars were pink and chunky from the scar tissue, where as mine were dark coarse lumps of bark. Despite the difference it was no more appealing than my disfiguring scars.
‘I wanted to have a look around,’ I said, hoping he wasn’t going to try to cart me back to Farkuz. The skritt nodded, its large eyes darting incessantly around the cavern.
‘I am Matrik. I am leader. I keep my people safe. This village is safe,’ he said, and I wondered if the glimmer in his eyes was pride, or the reflection of shiny trinkets that adorned his neck. ‘Who are you?’ He asked me.
‘I am Azalea, and the charr is called Farkuz,’ I said. The shritt shook his head.
‘That is only names, not who you are,’ he squeaked.
‘I…’ I stumbled with my words. How else could I describe who I am? I thought about the sum of my life and I didn’t like the results. Thankfully Matrik didn’t wait for an answer.
‘Scars show pain, stance shows warrior, eyes show kit,’ he said shaking his head. ‘Not make much sense, but walking plants not make much sense. Grown for battle means body of warriors, heads of kits.’
I could only stare at him wordlessly, wondering which one of us was crazier; him for his befuddling words, or me for attempting to hold a conversation with a skritt.
‘Sprout!’ an angry roar ripped through the cavern and echoed off the rock walls. I rushed past Matrik to Farkuz’s side. ‘The skritt are useless!’ Farkuz growled so ferociously that the skritt who had been helping him scampered off. ‘Here, grip this wire and hold back the battery. Don’t let it touch the cooling core or we’ll both lose our fingers in the explosion.’
I helped Farkuz for the next few hours and once he realised I was a much more capable assistant he seemed to calm down. I saw Matrik again across the clearing, talking to a well-armed, much younger skritt. If shiny trinkets were a good indication of power for skritt, the younger skritt must have been second in charge.
‘You seem to know a lot about skritt,’ I said to Farkuz. He rubbed his oil-stained paw against his maw as he looked up from his work.
‘I use to run a maintenance route on a cannon range that had a skritt problem,’ he said gruffly. ‘Little blighters caused all sorts of trouble. They’d steal cannon balls from armed and vicious charr just because they were shiny, and after we’d get them back they’d try again. They weren’t a smart bunch, mind you; it was only a small hive.’
‘Is this a big hive?’
‘Biggest I’ve seen for sure,’ he said, also gazing around. ‘But I think once, a long time ago, this would have been small.’
‘What do you mean?’
Farkuz rubbed his hands on a soiled rag and sat down next to me.
‘Well, apparently when the asura and skritt use to live underground together the asura use to have to do mass exterminations just to keep the skritt populations in check. Skritt breed like sparkflys in a swamp.’
My furrowed brows deepened.
‘They killed them?’
‘According to the asura, the skritt population threatened to endanger the asura, but when you think about it, that many skritt would have been incredibly intelligent. I bet the asura didn’t like anyone being as smart as them.’
Farkuz looked over to me and jumped as he saw my face. Dark and dangerous emotions swirled within in, thundering at my chest and fueling a fire in my heart.
‘Asura are vermin,’ I snapped, jumping from my spot.
‘Don’t get so caught up in the story sprout, it was hundreds of years ago. Besides, it’s not like they did anything to you…’ his voice trailed off as he caught my eye.
I kicked a stone angrily and sent it flying.
‘Listen sprout,’ Farkuz continued,his voice low and serious. ‘I don’t know what your story is but I’ve seen the way you look at Lurk. I’m telling you now, you can’t kill him.’
I shot the charr a glare.
‘Asura deserve no sympathy,’ I spat.
‘It’s not sympathy sprout! It’s my orders. This mission means a lot to Kilgar. I won’t let you screw it up.’
‘How can you protect that thing!’ I yelled angrily, letting the swirling tempest of emotions run wild.
Farkuz flinched at my outburst, but it was more out of shock than fear. He let out a long low hiss through his teeth as if he was letting out hot air.
‘I’ve never met a blooming flower so full of hate,’ he muttered as he turned his back on me.
I snapped my fingers to indicate to Stalk we were leaving and I stormed away. Everyone took the asura’s side. It wasn’t as if I was going to kill him like Farkuz said, I just didn’t understand why anyone would care about them? They were nothing but race of cruel beasts. Didn’t they see how evil the asura were? I stopped suddenly as emotion overpowered my barriers and swelled over me like a tidal wave. I crouched down, desperately trying to keep my tears from flooding. Memories of the Nightmare lab flooded back to me. Bex’s cruel eyes, the harsh noise of drilling as they ripped through my bark, the spiders and pain. The fear and hate mingled into a paralyzing cocktail and suddenly I felt like I was drowning. I choked and Stalk whimpered. I felt a presence next to me, I swung around menacingly. My hand connected with fur and the creature went flying. I looked down to see a tiny skritt whimpering.
‘I- I’m sorry,’ I said blinking. I hadn’t meant to hit the creature, I had been so confused. The creature cowered in front of me and I felt a pang of guilt. ‘Are you alright?’ I asked but the kit just cried. I was at a loss. What was I supposed to do? Stalk sensed my feelings and padded up to the kit, the kit looked terrified but Stalk simply licked the creature. Stalk’s fat tongue was almost half the size of the kit’s head and when Stalk pulled away the kit’s fur was standing upright, held solid with sticky sap. It blinked blankly then looked up at Stalk with large eyes. Stalk yapped playfully and the kit squeaked in response. I let out a low sigh of relief. The skritt stood up and retrieved something drop the dirt. It was a metal disc and a gelatinous milky blob that the kit placed back onto the disk. She began to dust off the dirt but it was no use. After a few moments the kit deemed it worthy and placed it down in front of me and stared expectantly. Horrified, I realized it was meant to be food. Stalk and I stared at it, neither of us wanted to eat it. The kit seemed to be waiting for something so I said a soft ‘thank you’ and it squeaked with glee before diving off. Stalk sniffed the blob and pulled back, he looked at me and I shook my head.
‘I’m not going to eat it – help yourself.’
Stalk must have been hungry because he swallowed it in one gulp but he looked queasy afterwards.
I returned to the charr much later. I wondered if he would be angry at me, or even worse completely abandon me. Instead he acted normal, hissing and barking at the broken golems.
‘You missed supper. They brought grub meat,’ he said gesturing to his untouched blob.
The skritt had laid out animal pelts for us to sleep on, and in the late of the night, when Farkuz could no longer keep his eyes open, we slept.
Farkuz worked tirelessly on the golems, but as the days passed he grew more and more frustrated. The skritt fed us a diet of grub meat, which we forgo, until Farkuz growled at them to bring us some ‘real food’. They brought back cave mushrooms. Farkuz was not pleased, but he agreed they were more edible than grubs. Every day I looked up at the skylight and watched the morning sun rise. I wondered how the group was doing. Surely they had moved on without us, I guessed Hans would try and wait for me to get back to the surface, but Kilgar would have made them march on. A sharp pain struck my heart as I thought of it and I wandered back to Farkuz.
‘Do you think they’ve left by now?’ I asked. Farkuz snarled as an arch electricity zapped him.
‘Damn asura tech,’ he growled, nursing his finger. He looked up at me. ‘What? You mean the group? No, they’re probably looking for us. Knowing Kilgar, he probably started digging. Hopefully that smart ass asura and the meat bag convinced him out of it,’ he said with a rough laugh. I was confused.
‘You’re sure they’re looking for us? Don’t you think Kilgar would have pressed on?’
‘Warbands don’t abandon each other sprout. I promise you, if we don’t find them, they’ll find us. Besides, Kilgar and I are the only ones left. We can’t afford to lose each other.’ His face turned grave and I opened my mouth to ask more but he shot me a warning glare.
Farkuz seemed so sure of Kilgar’s loyalty. I had never been that sure of someone in my life. Surprisingly it was nice, even comforting, to know the group was waiting for us; well Farkuz at least. I was suddenly very glad he had fallen with me.
Blast it!’ Farkuz roared, throwing his wrench down. All the skritt in the clearing jumped and I couldn’t help but flinch. ‘The damn things are in perfect order, they should be working!’ he growled. ‘Stinking golems.’ With an angry swing he kicked the lifeless metal contraptions. The two golems clanged forcefully together and suddenly whirled into life.
‘START-UP SEQUENCE INITIATED. ORDERS REQUESTED,’ they blared in unison. The skritt squeaked ecstatically and quickly surrounded us.
‘Do whatever these blasted skritt ask of you,’ Farkuz commanded.
‘AFFIRMATIVE. NEW MASTERS RECOGNIZED; BLASTED SKRITT.’
Farkuz chuckled appreciatively.
The skritt had the golems tunneling within moments. I noticed Farkuz was quick to snatch up his tools before the skritt pinched them again. Matrik skittered over to us.
‘Thank you. The golems are important, very important. Need more room, more home, more kit,’ he said, a pleased glimmer in his eye. He pointed the the well-armed younger skritt I had seen earlier.
‘This my kit; Kratt’ok,’ he said, as the kit stepped forward. ‘He will lead you to the surface.’
Kratt’ok showed us out of the giant cavern the way we had come in. Many of the skritt watched us leave, including a little kit standing close by watching us. It seemed to be the same kit who had brought me the grub meat earlier, but it was impossible to properly tell all the kit apart. As we entered the narrow tunnels and exited the cavern I felt a soft sadness pool in the base of my heart. I had grown use to watching the skritt skitter around their village, however, Farkuz couldn’t have looked happier.
‘When I get to the surface, I’m having the biggest, fattest piece of steak I can find,’ he muttered. A few days of fasting hadn’t made him skinner, but he still looked ravenous.
The tunnels gradually inclined, and I could feel we were getting closer to the surface.
‘The skritt kept their word,’ I said absently.
‘The only time a skritt doesn’t keep his work is when it involves shiny trinkets, or he simply forgot, and I can’t help but notice some of my tools are still missing!’ he grumped.
Suddenly there was a tremendous rumble that quaked the tunnel, sending rocks and dust tumbling from the ceiling.
‘What was that?!’ Farkus cried.
Kratt’ok’s eyes widened and his ears were twitching erratically.
‘Bad, bad, bad, bad, bad!’ he cried. ‘My mate, my kit, must go!’ Without a moment of hesitation he fled back down the tunnel as the ground rumbled again.
‘What’s happening?’ I yelled looking to Farkuz for answers. The rumbling continued but this time we heard panicked skritt screeching. My heart started to boom in my chest.
‘We need to go to the surface. It can’t be far from here,’ Farkuz tried to roar over the deep rumble. ‘The tunnel could collapse!’
He was right. It would be dangerous to back track and I was sure I could find the exit from here. We turned to ascend up the tunnel when I heard another wave of skritt screeching. The kit’s image flashed in my head and my heart clenched. I turned around.
‘What are you doing?’ Farkuz growled.
‘The skritt need us, something is not right.’
‘They can deal with their own problems. We need to get back to the others,’ he said sternly.
I bit my lip. If Farkuz left without me, I would surely never see Hans again. The group wouldn’t wait for me. I hesitated, then shook my head.
‘No, I cant.’ I said, turning away and hurrying back down into the dark tunnel.