The tunnel trembled as I staggered into the skritt cavern. Mobs of skritt were fleeing past me, their frantic screeching dulled by the deafening rumble. I reached down and grabbed a skritt by his scruff and pulled him up to face me. He flailed frantically, yipping and clicking.
‘What’s going on?’ I barked. ‘Where is your leader, Matrik?’
‘Great grub… sleeping… golem… now awake. Matrik, go fight…. give time to skritt.’ The skritt’s words were barely intelligible and he seemed to be gasping from the strain of having to talk.
‘Which way?’ I asked urgently.
The skritt pointed and I placed the small creature down roughly before running in that direction. I didn’t have to go far. I soon recognized the spot that the golems had started tunneling, except now the tunnel was spewing hundreds of luminous slime-covered grubs, some as thick as my torso.
A small group of skritt were hacking and slashing at the grubs as they slithered out. However, no matter how much they sliced, the waves of wriggling grubs continued to pulsate out of the hole, tumbling over their oozing corpses. The skritt were quickly being overwhelmed. Another rumble shook the ground and a new wave of grubs flushed out of the tunnel, knocking over many of the skritt. I pulled a handful of shafts out of my quiver and sent a volley of arrows into the wriggling swell. The arrows embedded deep into their gelatinous flesh and the skritt managed to pull themselves out from the corpses. I ran over to them, sifting through the disgusting slop to recover my arrows.
‘Where is Matrik?’ I asked the skritt.
They were all panting with exhaustion, but one managed to point a long finger down the hole. I sighed and peered down the narrow tunnel. The floor was submerged in a thick layer of twitching grubs. If I was going to get through my bow would be useless in such short quarters. I looked around and spotted an abandoned skritt sword on the floor and picked it up. It was decorated with beads and a strange assortment of shiny metals along the hilt; but it seemed sturdy enough. I tucked my bow around my back and ducked past the lip of the tunnel.
‘No!’ the skritt squeaked. ‘Not safe! You go, you die!’
‘What do you mean die? Matrik is in there,’ I snapped, and without looking back I started to wade through the swell of wriggling grubs.
I hacked and slashed as I went, sending sprays of green slime over my legs. Stalk followed close behind, trying to jump his way through the corpses. I could sense his disgust. The further we delved, the deeper we had to wade through the grubs, until they came up to my knees. I stumbled through their oozing insides, trying to ignore the stench. Occasionally I heard shrieking and I reached down only to pull out a skritt who would frantically scamper back up the tunnel.
The passage finally widened and I emerged into another vast underground cavern. I gasped as I looked up to see, rearing in front of me, a colossal grub. It towered over Stalk and I, as thick as the Pale Tree’s branches, and emitting a strange unearthly screeching as it thumped its head against the roof of the cavern in anger, sending rocks and pebbles tumbling down.
‘Plant!’ I heard a skritt squeak, and I turned to see Matrik. Behind him was his son, Kratt’ok, and a handful of other skritt warriors. They made a small barrier around the threshold of the tunnel and were fending off grubs.
‘You must not stay!’ he chattered frantically. ‘We seal cavern with bomb, stop angry mummy grub. Go back, go back!’
‘We can all go back,’ I said quickly, but Matrik shook his head and tried to push me back through the tunnel. ‘No time. Must save village. We stay, stop more grubs.’
I opened my mouth to argue but a massive bang swept me off my feet. We were flung forward and enveloped in a cloud of dust. I looked up to see the passage had collapsed. I stared at it in horror. We were trapped!
From the dust cloud I heard a hacking cough and a large form emerged. I pulled myself up and my heart sung as I recognized the feline form. It was Farkuz!
‘Just in time,’ he said, wiping dust from his face. ‘Don’t look at me like that sprout. If I’d let you die down here I’d never hear the end of it from that nagging meatbag!’
‘Leader, with plant and big cat, might survive,’ one of the skritt chattered to Matrik. However, Matrik looked sullen.
‘Kill mummy grub first, rest calm down. Must kill soon. Skritt flee, our smartness weakens. Now we fight! For mate, for kit, for village!’ He said raising his sword high. The rest of the skritt rose their swords in unison, letting loose a torrent of chittering and clicking.
‘They’re loosing their connection to their hive. It’s making them stupid. If we don’t kill the giant grub soon we’ll be fighting by ourselves,’ Farkuz barked.
‘Stalk, protect the skritt,’ I commanded. Stalk barked and took a protective stance by Matrik. The skritt started to hack and slash their way through the sea of grubs. I tucked the sword into my belt, and pulled out my bow as Farkuz pulled his pistols off his hip.
‘Cover me,’ I yelled, pulling back my drawstring and aiming it at the grub’s giant black eye. Farkuz nodded and produced an array of small metal contraptions from his bag. He fiddled with them momentarily and then threw them into the sea of crawling grubs. There was a faint beep, then a loud bang. The grubs exploded into a wave of gloppy flesh and ooze that showered us. A fat slab of grub blubber slowly dripped down my cheek and I heard Farkuz dry-retch. I could see Stalk tearing apart grubs with his sharp fangs and the skritt seemed to be holding their own.
I regained my concentration and took a deep slow breath; the grub’s eye in my sights. I let the arrow loose and it whirled through the air and lodged deeply into the grub’s eyeball. The grub let out a cringing shriek and withered, slamming itself against the side of the cavern, knocking us to our feet. All around us the grubs responded to their mother’s pain and started twitching with vigor and ferocity. Suddenly the giant grub reared back and a bright light gathered in its mouth. It looked beautiful, like a miniature sun, but as it flickered I realized what it was. I yelled, and rolled out of the way, narrowly avoiding the massive fireball. As I pulled myself up the smell of burning grub flesh assaulted my nose.
‘Its aim is off. It’s killing its own young!’ Farkuz yelled with glee, sending a volley of poison darts from his pistol.
The skritt were slowly loosing focus. One of them had dropped his sword in favor for his instinctual claws.
‘Farkuz! The skritt!’ I yelled. Farkuz looked over and nodded.
I stared back at the still withering colossal grub. I had hoped a direct shot to the eye would lodge deep enough to pierce the brain, but it seemed from this distance I couldn’t properly puncture the grub’s thick gelatinous hide. I would have to get closer.
I took a deep breath and started running. I jumped onto the back of the baby grubs, dancing from one oozy body to the next. It took all my power to stay light on my feet, and not slip off their slimy backsides. I finally made it to the trunk of the beast and began climbing up its sticky body. Thankfully there were other grubs clinging to the beast’s gunky hide so the mother grub didn’t notice me. The baby grubs wiggled as I climbed past them, but weren’t aggressive. They were probably too small to do any real damage. I climbed my way up until the incline of the grub’s back was too steep, not to mention it was still convulsing from its punctured eye. I pulled two arrows from my quiver and plunged one deep into the grub’s flesh. The grub didn’t seem to be in pain, but I was definitely irking it. I plunged another and slowly, using the arrows, climbed my way up. By the time I reached the grub’s head it was thrashing in pain. I grasped the embedded arrows tightly and glanced down. Stalk and the skritt were suffering. The skritt who were alive had completely forgotten their swords and were fighting tooth and claw. Only Matrik still had his sword, but his actions were slurred. Farkuz was defending them, roasting the grubs alive with his blowtorch.
My arms were starting to ache from holding onto the swaying grub. I pushed forward and pulled myself up onto the beast’s head. I pulled the skritt’s sword off my hip and swung it high, before plunging it into the grub’s gelatinous hide. It sunk deep, and the giant grub swayed slowly. Suddenly the grub plummeted and I struggled to grasp onto the grub’s slimy skin as it fell. When it went still I thought I had killed it, until it started pulling up again. In a moment I realized what it was doing. I swung myself over the side of the grub’s head, pulling out and embedding an arrow deep into its flesh as I slid. I jerked back as the grub slammed its head against the cavern roof. Pebbles tumbled off my back and as I looked up, an enormous black pupil focused on me. I was staring into the grub’s good eye. I quickly pulled myself up and yanked the sword from its flesh. The grub’s head plummeted and as it slowed to a stop I sunk the sword into its wound again, deeper this time. The grub hesitated, but started ascending again. I stabbed again, but I was still rapidly approaching the ceiling.
‘Get off there!’ I heard Farkuz roar, but I knew the skritt wouldn’t last long enough. I had to kill it now!
With all my strength I pulled back the sword high above my head and as I plunged the sword into the grub’s fatty mass a final time I felt my head cram against the rock ceiling. I cringed, preparing to be crushed.
Except I wasn’t. The grub swayed, and then slowly tilted. Then the ground started hurtling towards me. I held onto the grub’s antenna but my hand slipped and I went flying. I landed deeply into a pole of grub corpses as the colossal beast crumbled into the ground behind me with a deafening thud. Grub juice covered me, and I felt wriggling beneath me. I threw myself upright, holding in a shriek and Farkuz grabbed my shoulder to hold me steady. The giant grub lay in front of us, its one good eye lifeless and its tiny limbs twitching. The baby grubs began to tunnel into the ground, fleeing.
‘Crawl away you disgusting vermin!’ Farkuz roared, letting loose a charr battle cry. He raised his paw into the air in an enthusiastic gesture.
‘We did it sprout! We did it!’