Mitjan woke with an exhausted yawn and opened his dark, sleepy eyes. Next to him his son and husband were still dozing. It appeared like any normal morning: he and Lath'N would wake to find the house to just themselves and Bobb'N as though Deet had as usual already gotten up and out to begin feeding the nurloc herds, and would soon be back for a late breakfast.
The house felt so empty without her promised return. Mitjan sat up in his shared bed, rested his head in his hands, took in a big breath, and let out a long, long sigh.
A hand caressed his elbow. Mitjan took it in his as he looked into the eyes of his waking husband. "Morning Lath'N."
"Morning Mitjan." The two's morning greetings had become thin and sad since Deet had gone. It felt like Thra should stop turning until she returned home. But Deet was gone so that Thra could go on turning apparently, so all they could do was go on with their lives till she was back. Bobb'N continued sleeping as Mitjan pulled himself out of bed. He ran his fingers through his pale hair and fetched his pointed hat.
Brushing Bobb'N's hair, Lath'N watched as Mitjan attired himself for a trip to the nurloc herds, and then carefully slid himself out of bed to see him off. Fitting on his leather bag for collecting cave moss, Mitjan crept back to the bed and gave Bobb'N a very soft kiss, then walked to and quietly opened the round front door and gazed over Domrak. Most of the other Grottans had not risen yet.
Mitjan scanned the cavernous air above just in case today was when Deet finally would be flying home, her bright wings beating like notes of a heart-lifting melody. Domrak seemed to be waiting as well. Unusually quiet, he could only just distantly hear the Breath of Thra, and that too seemed less lively than normal. The caves phosphoresce appeared dim and tired. Symptoms of Thra's sickness? That would justify the need for someone to go warn the All-Maudra of the Darkening, but even more a reason he would want Deet to stay home. And yet…
Mitjan's ears turned down.
"Mitjan…" Mitjan turned to his husband. Lath'N looked forlorn and tired. Mitjan felt as such himself; he too had slept uneasily. "I'm going to go see Maudra Argot. I want to know if she's learned any news of Thra or Deet."
Mitjan bobbed his head in midget hope. "Maybe today..." He felt grateful and slightly ashamed that Bobb'N was still asleep and did not hear his voice come out so shallow and cracked. Lath'N's dark eyes crinkled and he wrapped his arms around his husband. Mitjan returned the embrace. Resting their chins on each other's shoulders, cheeks pressed together, the two shared a quiet spell of sorrow and solace.
Giving Lath'N a small kiss on the cheek and a briefly resting their foreheads together, Mitjan adjusted his hat and began trekking down to the nurloc herds (or what was left of it). At the door Lath'N said after him "Be careful." Mitjan half-turned and waved in serious acknowledgement, and then continued down.
Shortly after Mitjan had gone off to attend the herds Bobb'N roused, rubbing the sleepiness out of one of his eyes, the other blinking at his remaining papa. "Deet home yet?" He had asked every morning upon waking and evening before bed since she had departed.
Lath'N's dark eyes alighted with apologetic adoration before answering. "Not yet, Bobb'N. Not yet." His strong voice masked the ache he felt every time he had to tell Bobb'N that. "Come on. We're going to visit Argot. She may have news about Deet."
"Papa at the nurlocs?" Bobb'N asked, noticing Mitjan's absence.
Lath'N nodded with a half-smile. "Yes, papa is feeding the herds." He sadly chuckled inside. Oh, the times Deet had pretended to be confused whether 'papa' or 'father' was specifying himself or Mitjan. He didn't know whether laugh or cry if Bobb'N one day picked it up.
"Is Deet there too? Is Deet feeding the nurlocs with papa?" Bobb'N asked with a small, persistent hope.
Lath'N cradled the side of Bobb'N's still sleepy head. "I don't think so. She's likely still above ground. Still on her adventure."
Bobb'N's soft face pouted. "Deet's been gone forever. I want Deet."
Lath'N sniffed, feeling his tired eyes get watery. "We all do. We all do." He kissed Bobb'N on the forehead.
As Mitjan neared the nurlocs' usual feeding grounds he slowed his pace and listened carefully for any signs of aggression, but the zone was eerily quiet. Creeping evermore carefully, he came into full view of the cavern they typically lounged and fed. He found nothing, not even other herders. Arms akimbo, he huffed uneasily.
What was happening? The nurloc herds were certainly decreasing recently; yesterday only half their usual numbers were to be found, but now there were none. They could not have died off so suddenly. What drew or drove them out? What could drive them out? He had considered invasive nurlocs, which maybe could explain why there had been reported sounds of aggression among them, but the sweet nurlocs had never been known to be confrontational before. Is an invasive herd is the unknown exception? But then where are they all; native or stranger?
An alternative possibility nibbled the back of his mind.
"It's like... a sickness."
Mitjan suddenly wished he had asked Lath'N to consult Maudra Argot also on the disappearing nurlocs, in case no one else had yet.
No one else: Mitjan then took notice a second time that no other herder was in sight either. He scanned the cavern again, this time for fellow Grottans who may have also been puzzling over missing nurlocs. Deet was not the only earlier riser: surely Naga or old Haran had already arrived. Could they have already doubled back to inform Argot?
Mitjan's attentive ear pricked at something a little ways to his right, among the edge of where the nurlocs usually dwell. His instincts roused in apprehension. He did not want to believe that all Thra could be in danger, but he could not deny something was amiss within Grot. Perhaps it was related to the nurlocs' strange behaviour and absence; the creatures of Thra usually sensed trouble first, he taught Deet.
Recalling how she was attacked the last time she was out on her own, Lath'N was tempted to abandon risk and return to his family. But if something really was wrong in Grot, a wrong that got Deet hurt; Lath'N, Bobb'N and the rest of Domrak were at risk too. Maudra Argot had admitted the limitation of her knowledge about this Darkening. If there was a true danger at Domrak's doorstep, then staying ignorant was about the most dangerous a choice that could be made.
Straightening his hat again, Mitjan huffed to himself and slunk towards the sound, ready to flee should disaster pop out of the rocky ground. As he got nearer he recognized the noise of baby nurlocs crying and quickened his pacing. He found four of them in a small carved out hollow in the border of the nurloc feeding grounds. Momentarily quieting at his arrival, four dozen quivering blue eyes settled on him. They then resumed crying needlingly.
Mitjan's paternal heart nearly burst at the sight of the crying babies. They were clearly hungry, lonely, and for some reason, scared. "Oh, oh there. What's the matter?" he cooed, approaching them slowly and kneeling before them, letting them cover the little remaining distance. The nearest quickly nuzzled him and rubbed its mouth against his empty moss bag, snuffling for glowing treats. Whimpering, the others nuzzled him too, even when it was clear to them he had no edibles to offer. What was going on?, he puzzled. It was so unusual to see nurloc babies forlorn when they were clearly in need. Then again, so was the adult nurlocs' complete absence.
"There there. Where's your mama, huh? Where's your papa?" he soothed to each of them, petting them and cradling their large heads in his lap. It felt a bit funny how reversed their troubles were: the babies were missing their parents, while he and Lath'N were missing their daughter. In a twisted way, he appreciated having needy younglings to give parenting to.
For now he would help these babies on dear Deet's behalf. Once the babies' fright had eased Mitjan cooed, "I'll be back okay? Going to get you some munchies. If your parents aren't back soon, I promise I will be, okay?" Starting to cry again, though less so and sounding more just needy than upset, the nurlocs stayed in the little cave and watched as Mitjan crawled out to collect them some promised munchies. Scanning around himself in case an angry parent had abruptly arrived, he then appraised the babies one last time, puzzling doubtfully as to why they feared to venture out. 'The creatures of Thra always know first.' Straightening his hat again, he then made haste to the cliffside he knew the moss grew most readily.
Closing the rounded door behind them, Lath'N and Bobb'N began the short walk to their Maudra's residence. It was still oppressively quiet, like Domrak was holding its breath. A third of the way to Argot's Lath'N spotted another Grottan on a lane two staircases above and distantly waved hello. The other gelfling did not acknowledge or respond: she kept walking in an unknown direction. Lath'N internally frowned but gave her the benefit of doubt. Maybe she just hadn't shaken off the morning sleepiness yet.
Walking along the familiar, winding, lanes, Lath'N fished his thoughts for what he could reasonably asked or expect of Argot this time. So far he had not allowed himself to become angry with her or impatient with her unsatisfying answers, but he could not deny he was beyond upset with the whole scenario. Maudra Argot had always been feisty and nutty since he could remember, but for her to send Deet on a possibly dangerous quest, alone, into unfamiliar domains, and with a torn wing…
From another perspective however, it was like the Three Brothers above ground had aligned for this happenstance.
Had anyone but Maudra Argot say Deet must go he would have given more argument. Despite her nuttiness, Argot had never steered their clan wrong before, though she had also never before sent one of their own away (at least as far as he knew).
Keeping a gentle hold on Bobb'N, he was too lost in his ruminations to notice that even sweet Bobb'N could not get a hello out a gelfling walking the direction opposite them; the other adult too seemed to mentally elsewhere, his eyes fixated ahead like a dead man with a purpose. Bobb'N craned his head to see what masking the far side of his face.
Trees can't talk.
Except when they can.
Crazy Argot became uncharacteristically solemn at that moment.
What did the Sanctuary Tree tell you, Deethra?
It said I had to stop the Darkening.
Had he not seen with his own eyes the Sanctuary Tree become animated and take Deet to the surface, Lath'N may have chosen to believe his Maudra was having a senile moment and that his daughter only dreamed being chosen by the tree and shown visions.
At least twice a day since Deet ascended he had gone to see the tree himself, sometimes with Lath'N and Bobb'N, hoping the tree would answer him; why it had to choose his daughter of all folk? Could the tree not understand that Deet was just too pure for the surface world? Was that why she was chosen?
It chose well. No arguing with trees! Ha ha ha!
But the Sanctuary Tree never answered him; never gave comfort or guidance. Or if it did, he remained deaf to its voice. The tree had never become animated again since it took Deet away…
She looked so sad, yet trusting and hopeful... So small.
Had Deet not been willing to go, he would have too readily vetoed every reason she should. But Deet said yes. In hindsight, it seemed so obvious she would say yes if it would help others.
We have to save them!
The first words that come out of her mouth when she woke up. After she was hurt, her first concern was them. Others. Such selflessness had always seemed to be one of her virtuous flaws. And it finally done her family hurt...
Bobb'N's head turned at a small clatter coming from one of the homes they passed. He quickly turned his head back forth between his thinking papa and the noise, pointing to the latter while pressing closer to the former. Lath'N halted in his thoughts and heeded what was bothering Bobb'N, but the clatter ceased. He continued staring to the home Bobb'N had pointed out until a stirring of rocks had them both spin, looking to an area down a curved flight of stairs. Nothing out of the ordinary was to be scene, yet Lath'N did not feel relieved. Something ordinary was absent too. Domrak no longer seemed to be holding its breath; it seemed to be getting chocked so it could not cry for help. Keeping hold of one of Bobb'N's hands in his own, his other resting on his son's shoulder, Lath'N cautiously continued on, no longer distracting himself with internal questions.
They reached Maudra Argot's home. Unlike their own, Argot's residence boasted a triangular entrance with carvings in the likes of a cluster of hollarbats, and a curtain of vines in place of a rounded door. Within Lath'N could hear the muffled tapping of Argot's cane and Argot's muttering. She seemed to be by herself. Passing slowly through the plant curtain, guiding Bobb'N through, he passed into Argot's living quarters, knowing the subtle ruffles of the leaves would inform her of guests.
Past the curtains the rock's natural roughness gave way to carved stone, the main chamber like the smooth-lined stomach of horny-hide beast. The curved walls were illuminated with cracks filled with crystal veins, like lighting frozen within the rock. Maudra Argot was pacing along the wall of the curved chamber, diligently tapping the walls and floor and pausing in deep attentiveness, muttering the whole while. She appeared like a lost senile women indeed and not to have noticed Lath'N and Bobb'N's entrance. But Lath'N knew better: on both accounts.
Bobb'N made a soft cooing sound and Argot halted her tapping and turned to them. The way her old face slouched evidenced she too had woken only a short while ago and did not sleep well. "So, which is it today: Lath'N or Mitjan? Hello little Bobb'N! She spoke sweetly to the childling with a brief smile but then stared blindly to Lath'N with an air of agitation. Lath'N wondered if he had already exceeded his Maudra's patience and that this would be an embarrassingly short consultation.
Lath'N took in a breath. "Maudra Argot, I'm sorry for bothering you again, but it's - ." He trailed off, expecting Argot to interject like she did last time, and the time before, but Argot said nothing – with her voice anyway. She wore a troubled frown and Lath'N got a hunch she was just as troubled as he was; she was simply not hiding it. "Deet...," he finished. Argot's frown devolved into a guilty and grieved grimace and Lath'N's misgivings grew. "Has something happened?"
Giving the wall another inspective tap and heeding the reverberations, Argot briefly considered whether to confide with him. She opened her mouth and then closed it, as though to wet her tongue and taste the air before befouling both with her news. "A swoothu came," she confessed. "With a piece of the All-Maudra's crown." Lath'N did not know what to make of this and kept silent. Argot picked up on his non-understanding and reluctantly explained. "All-Maudra Mayrin is dead."
Mitjan reached the foot of his destination. It was one of the higher areas within the immense cavern. Easily accessible to any of the female Grottans with their wings, the males made due with climbing.
Unintimidated by the height, he began his assent, strong callused fingers easily finding even the tiniest nooks and ridges to grasp. Soon he was at a height where such a climb would be treacherous for any flightless daylighter. But for a Grottan it was as regular as a hike up a hill; he was more concerned about losing his hat than his grip. Two thirds of the way up, he paused at a notice of motion in his peripheral vision. Looking to where he noticed it, he saw nothing out of the ordinary on the rocky wall, save that the wall itself seemed…duller, it's phosphorescence adopting a purplish hue in some areas like a bruise. He swiveled his ears for any sign of movement, among the walls or the empty space behind him. Perhaps a hollarbat had just taken flight. But the only present sound was the distant exhalation of the Breath of Thra. Dismissing what he may have not seen, Mitjan completed his climb. Pulling himself over a ledge, he found the bounty of edible moss as he knew he would. Before harvesting, Mitjan paused to appraise the Breath of Thra. In case Maudra Argot had nothing to offer to Lath'N, Mitjan opted to try praying to Thra itself (not for the first time).
'Oh Thra. Is Deet safe? Has she made to Ha'rar? Can she please come home soon? What ails you?' With all the paternal patience he could summon, he waited for any sort of reply, be it in cryptic song, vision, or feeling, but the Breath of Thra only sighed.
Sighing himself, Mitjan knelt and began collecting the glow moss and stuffing it into his bag. He was graced with a memory from a few trine ago:
"Deet, have you been snacking before breakfast?" he asked with his arms crossed. Deet had just gotten home from feeding –not exclusively – the nurlocs.
"No. Of course not," Deet replied unconvincingly, hiding her hands behind her back despite the evidence still glowing turquoise all over her face.
Deet had gotten smarter since then of course, but she likely was encountering all sorts of things beyond Grotton ken. Had she made any friends up above, to assist, guide, and comfort her? He starred forlornly at the moss he held, himself deeply missing the help and comfort Deet exuded.
To ease the loneliness and oppressive quiet, Mitjan began singing the lullaby he and Lath'N always sang to their children.
"Far from the Brothers blinding light,
beneath the blanket of the long night,
Grottons work in the dark and deep where the glow moss grows and the crawlies creep.
So lay down my childling and sleep, no need to fear and no need to weep."
As his lullaby finished and he was picking another piece of moss, a strange purple goo strung off it's underside. The sheer strangeness of it made him drop it without thinking. Shaking off his surprise, he crouched to all fours and cautiously tried to discern what it was. He considered it to maybe be a decomposer growth, but the moss here was alive and well. A parasitic growth then maybe? Whatever it was, it aggressively seeped and ate into the moss he dropped, like some living will drove it to proliferate.
A beige liquid oozed down on top of it from above, interrupting his inspection. Startled, he stood and looked up to it's source, and gasped. A large, unfamiliar six-legged arthropod was clinging to the rocky wall above him. It was easily thrice his size. Facing down at him, more of the beige liquid oozed from its drooling mandibles. A startled exclamation caught in his throat, Mitjan gapped at it, hopping it was the kind of creature that only attacked when provoked. His hope failed him. Without prompt, the creature made a aggressive squelch sound and charged him. A cry escaping him, he spun and hopped to the ledge, wildely swung himself over, and clambered down as rapidly as he dared, not caring if his hat came off.
The creature pursued him, proving to be as adept a wall climber as any Grottan. Despite clambering across the rock at a pace that was risky even for him, the arthropod caught up. Just as it was about to seize him in its mandibles Mitjan pulled off a trick that would have been suicidal for a flightless daylighter: he let go. Letting himself dropped several paces, he caught himself again on the rough rocky wall, experienced fingers hooking onto the surface, his limbs bending to absorb the momentum. The arthropod hissed, possibley in surprise at loosing its quarry, and resumed chasing after him. Mitjan hastily continued his decent, repeating his trick whenever the creature got too close again. Quickly reaching the floor of the cavern, Mitjan bounded across the stoney ground. His sharp hearing told him the arthropod had reached the floor and was scuttling after him. An indecision muddled his trace of flight: should he flee to Domrak for help, or try loosing the arthropod among the many tunnels? There would be many too narrow for it to pursue –
Thra seemed to have made a decision for him when the rock beneath him and his pursuer exploded.
"Ahhhh!" Hurdled head-over-heels and landing with nerve-racking pain on his back, he was further assaulted by a rain of broken rock and an earth shaking roar accompanied by a insectoid screech. Gasping where he lay, he had an upside-down view of a nurloc - fully grown - crunching and scarfing down the arthropod creature. As much as it threatened him, he could not help but feel sorry for it as he watched one last twitching leg disappear into the nurlocs maw. He then took notice of the nurlocs many eyes – they were purple. Was this individual one of the hypothetical invaders? It was like no sweet nurloc he had ever witnessed and his instincts shouted to not let any of those eyes spot him. Rapidly and quietly rolling and scurrying aside despite the bite of the broken rocks about him, Mitjan tucked himself under a protrusion in the uneven wall and went immediately limp like he were part of the many fungi and subterranean plants growing there – he would just suffer through any of the itchy spores they may assault him with for invading their space. For a little while the grumblings of the violent nurloc continued, though it did not seem to have taken notice of him – at least yet. Mitjan internally groaned upon recognizing a yellowy and orange-striped plant inches above his face. While not a particularly lethal plant, its spores tended to make him sneeze. Heart in his mouth, he held his breath while the nurloc continued grumbling. Mistaking him for part of the environment or missing him entirely, the estranged nurloc loudly and forcefully slithered off. Mitjan stayed where he was, ears tuning for any sign that the nurloc may double back, or that another may arrive in its wake. He also kept alert for any more of those strange arthropods. As his nerves calmed and the silence continued, Mitjan released his breath and wormed his way out of his hiding place. Shaking and brushing burrs off himself, nose bristling, he elected to quickly take whatever moss he had gathered to the babies and then report his close calls to Maudra Argot.
He took a shaky step towards the feeding grounds then halted when his hyper-alert ears pricked at another sound: quiet but close. Rotating as slowly and smoothly as though he were suspended in water, he apprehensively scanned the environment for a new alien threat. It was so small he would not have seen it were it keeping still: a three-appendaged flower-looking thing scuttling along the cave wall. He tilted his head in mild bafflement and wonder at the thing. He could have been curious were it not for the close call with a much bigger stranger moments ago. Now, he had misgivings as it kept scuttling closer to him. It paused a few paces off, tiny antennae quivering. He sensed it considering him and his misgivings grew. With startling speed it sprung at him. Before he could anticipate it, Mitjan responded with terrific sneeze.
The small creature did not get blown off course, but its orientation was upset and it collided askew with Mitjan's nose and nearly tumbled off. Mitjan instinctively swatted it off as it persistently dangled on his chin, but resisted the urge to squash it when it fell at his feet, upside down and struggling to upright itself. The hairs on the back of his neck rose as he heard a duplicate scuttling sound, this time with small chirping peep. He did not see it, but his other hyperalert senses detected that moment of something earthbound becoming momentarily airborne, and he guessed the landing zone. Clapping hands over his face and dropping and ducking as quickly as muscles and gravity could permit, he felt something narrowly pass over his head and take his hat with it. Even as he wildely spun to track where his mini attacker had landed he spotted more just like it scuttling along the cave floor towards him. The shiver down his spine turned into a jolt as beige slime oozed onto his shoulder from above.
Lath'N felt he had been dunked by a bucket of ice water and was frozen in shock. Bobb'N felt like the only warmth in his immediate presence. They held each other tenderly as Lath'N stammered, "Then, what about Deet, and warning... Did she make it to Ha'rar? Was she there when..."
Argot just shook her head like the lazy flapping of a fish fin. "I'm afraid. I don't know." She pawed the glowing cracks in the wall with one hand as if searching for an answer.
Lath'N was fighting down a roar of dispair and anguish. For Bobb'N's sake and his own, and his lingering respect for Argot, he asked as calmly as he could, "What will you do now?"
"I did the only thing I could do for now. I sent back the crown piece with my blessings for Mayrin's first heir to be her successor. Maybe Deet can attend the coronation and be the honorary bearer of first bad news! Ha ha!" The regular Argot surfaced momentarily, her laugh authentic despite having no mirth.
"But what can we do for Deet?! How can we know if she needs our help?" Lath'N pressed.
"Where's Deet?" Bobb'N whined.
Argot's attention returned to tapping and listening to the stone floor and walls like they were better conversationalists, even if they had nothing pleasant to say. Her agitation returned too. "Deet's fate is out of our hands. Thra must decide her next destiny. For now, we must attend to our own problems."
Lath'N felt himself become dangerously close to challenging Argot. "My problem is –"
Argot cut him off with a sharp stab at the floor with her cane. "Here. Something is here."
Bobb'N asked quietly and innocently, "What? What's here?"
Argot shuddered like she were shaking off allergenic spores. "I'm not sure. But they're here. And their larger kin are coming..." She shuffled her feet like crawlies were wiggling between her toes. "I feel it in the stone like they were my own bones, but I should have sensed it sooner!" She regarded Lath'N and Bobb'N again, her blind eyes alight with foreboding. "I really AM blind! They are here! They're upon us! Even as we speak! We must act!"
For Bobb'N's sake Lath'N was trying not to sound frightened as he opened his mouth again when a distant scream broke through the air. Lath'N and Bobb'N froze where they were and clutched each other whereas Argot answered with a rough battle cry and ambled out through the curtains. Other Grottans were heard crying out after Argot disappeared through the curtain vines.
Bobb'N whimpered and pressed his face into Lath'N. "It's alright Bobb'N. It's alright," Lath'N said warmly though on the inside he was uneasy. He was scared.
No. None of us are safe. The Darkening is spreading throughout Thra.
Argots voice broke through from outside. "Arathim! The Arathim have come!" Lath'N whipped his head at the name to the vine curtains. Torn between keeping Bobb'N out of risk and coming his fellow Grottans' aid. he stepped, reached through, and hesitantly pulled back the vines.
All over Domrak, surprised Grottans were fighting and fleeing from large six-legged arthropods. 'Arathim? The same from Battle of Stone-in-the-Wood?' The whole of Domrak appeared taken by surprise, like it had stumbled into an invisible web. Among the few Grottans daring to stand their ground was the Maudra.
Old Argot was brandishing her cane like a sword at the nearest pair of spitters and screaming at the top of her lungs. "You want some of this?! Oh I bet you don't! You don't want even just this part of this!" Despite how they dwarfed her, the two spitters surprisingly gave her a considerable berth. Argot continued brandishing her wooden cane at them like it was their bane, at least until she had to lean on it to catch her breath. "Ah. Ha. Maybe…," huff, "I should get the wood off..- " Argot had not noticed a small three-appendaged something approaching her from directly ahead. If she had functional sight she would have.
"Argot, look out!" Lath'N called out uselessly.
Argot hefted her stick up again like she were a retired veteran and angled her head to him. "What am I supposed to look out for whe– ahhhhh!" Argot began flailing, her cane threatening to fly out of her hand as the small thing leaped and found the side of her face.
Lath'N barely had time to decide what to do for Argot when a gelfling hand gripped his arm. He turned sharply and nearly tumbled back into the vines. The fellow Grottan that had gripped him had one more of the three limbed creatures on the side of her head and was staring at him like a corpse. "JOIN THE ASCENDENCY." Her voice was collectively familiar and alien.
Within the curtain vines Bobb'N cried out behind him. One of the spitters attacking Argot was now coming for them with predatory intent. At the sound of Bobb'N's cry Lath'N felt something within himself evaporate and his face hardened. With an apologetic thought he shoved off the possessed Grottan and then scooped Bobb'N in his arms with a strength and grace that would have made a Castle soldier proud. He then dashed past the rushing spitter like a shadow and passed the no longer struggling Argot.
Argot spun to him with a more blind than normal look and rasped, "I AM THE ASCENDENCY." Lath'N reluctantly left Argot behind, or whoever that was.
Bobb'N silently trembled in his arms, face buried in his shoulder as Lath'N ran through the raided town, dodging around spitters, possessed Grottans, and weaving away from any scuttling chirp sounds, sometimes clambering one-armed over short walls to bypass obscured lanes. Other Grottans were trying to do the same, nimbly avoiding capture till their fortune ran out. Occasionally a flying Grottan was shot down by a large glop of beige that nearly hardened into a leathery cocoon before the she even hit the ground.
One pair of spitters nearly cornered Lath'N before a small dark explosion went off against the giant bugs' faces, earning alarmed screeches from the arthropods and a window of escape for the father and son. "Run!" an unidentified but familiar Grottan voice from above called out to him. Lath'N did so, silently thanking the Grottans who kept a store of smoke bombs. About Domrak other spitters were learning the hard way that Grottans were notoriously unknown for their tricks.
Continuing to flee capture and getting closer to his home, Lath'N shuddered when he witnessed a married couple: the possessed wife held firmly to the wrists of her struggling husband as another one of the three-legged things scurried up his shoulder to his face. It latched on and his wails died, his face adopting the same dead blankness of his wife. "I AM THE ASCENDENCY."
'Where's Mitjan?' Lath'N heart-achingly thought.
Nearly home, he considered fleeing off with Bobb'N to the nurloc grounds when he noticed another gelfling worming his way out of one of the narrower tunnels in the cavern wall; one rarely used by adult gelfling because of its size. It took Lath'N a few scary, second-guessing seconds to recognize his husband clambering out, for Mitjan was wearing his moss gathering bag over his head. Mitjan's chin was tucked and shoulders hunched, his pawing hands were out to guide him. He likely had only a sliver of vision, if any, from under the bag. Lath'N dared hope he knew why switch of hat apparel.
Twisting in Lath'Ns arm to see ahead, Bobb'N beat him to calling out to his husband. "Papa!" Mitjan halted in his blind ambling and both cautiously and wildly turned his concealed head.
"Mitjan!?" Lath'N dared to call out over the chaos of screams, screeches, and explosions. One forearm raised in a guard near his chin, shoulders hunched again, Mitjan raised the bag from his face, and his eyes found them. Lath'N almost cried in short-lived relief to see nothing was on his husbands face but a look of terror.
"Bobb'N! Lath'N!" he croaked back, his large dark eyes beginning to wet and gleam.
Rushing together into each others arms, Lath'N embraced Mitjan with one arm while the other continued to hold Bobb'N. Mitjan was shaking all over. "We can't stay here, we have to leave," Lath'N said.
Mitjan shook his head in something uncharacteristically like despair. His speech came broken and fragmented. "We can't leave. They're back. They're mad. They're killing."
In his rushed, scrambled state of mind, Lath'N wondered if Mitjan somehow missed the giant and small bugs raiding their town; but then Mitjan would not have been hiding his head in a moss bag. "Who? Who's back?" They ducked down as another friendly barrage of smoke bombs rained down nearby, keeping a trio of spitters at bay. One of the spitters spelched and fired back at whichever Grottan assailed them. Less and less Grottans were to be heard still giving resistance. Domrak was about to fall.
Before Mitjan could answer, an earth shaking roar filled the cavern. Arathim and the remaining gelfling ominously heeded it. All trembled. Lath'N's mouth hung open in silent questioning and Bobb'N turned his tear-streaked face. Mitjan found his voice. "The nurlocs. Deet was right. The nurlocs have gone mad. All of them. They've taken over the caves. We cannot get out."
Another nurloc roar cemented Mitjan's words and three of the darkened beasts erupted into view, like living, writhing magma. Two were hunting distant scurrying spitters with an uncharacteristic rage, the third slithering closer to the usurped Domrak.
The nearby trio of spitters gave the arriving nurlocs a final consideration, almost appearing hesitant, and then charged the Grottan family in an organized triad. Cut off from other escape routes, Mitjan and Lath'N bounded over the short remaining distance to their home, Lath'N still carrying Bobb'N. Mitjan hurriedly opened the rounded door and held it at the ready for Lath'N and Bobb'N to pass in.
As Mitjan shut and locked the rounded door behind them, Lath'N ushered Bobb'N into the furthest reaches of their home. Settling him down and kneeling before him Lath'N said, "Bobb'N, listen to me. This is very important. No matter what happens next, I want you to hide and stay hidden. Do you hear me Bobb'N?"
Bobb'N 's young eyes were alight with understanding but he didn't nod or say anything. The tears were drying, leaving salt over his cheeks.
Large, jointed feet could be heard tapping and latching the outer walls like organic pickaxes. The outer door sounded with pushes and scrapings. Mitjan struggled and grunted as he tried to reinforce the door. Leaning against it with his back, he shared a tear-streaked look with Lath'N as the latter tried to comfort Bobb'N.
Bobb'Ns eyes looked distant. Lath'N tried to get through to him. "Do you understand? Stay hidden and you'll be safe."
Bobb'N gently shook his head like Argot had earlier. In a small, small voice Bobb'N said, "No. None of us are safe."
The door flung open, the lock wrenched off from sheer force. A spitter pressed and angled it's hard body in, and soon it's long pointed legs were clawing through the home interior, gutting the place.
Mitjan, being flung aside when the door was breached, stumbled, tucked, and rolled to avoid being spitted on one of the appendages. Leaving Bobb'N where he hid him, Lath'N hefted random household items and flung and swatted at the spitter. For all it's intimidating bulk, the bug did not appreciate the resistance it was getting and spelched in pain and frustration. Mitjan briefly joined in the assault from behind, until a second vehicle of legs and hardened hide broke into the home entrance.
Mitjan felt hard mouth appendages clamp around his ankle and sweep it out from under him. "Whaaaaahhhh!" Falling to his stomach, Mitjan felt himself getting pulled back through the destroyed door. His fingers groped desperately for something to grasp as the spitter dragged him.
Lath'N spun towards his voice. "Mitjan!" Something small flitted in from the pane-less windows.
Lath'N vaulted around the first spitter, which thrashed awkwardly in the confined space as it tried to keep trace of him. Lath'N dived over the broken furniture and gripped Mitjan's wrist, his other hand fasting onto the furniture. Slowed, the second spitter gave a muffled grumble and redoubled its efforts to pull them out. Pained from the tug-of-war, Mitjan felt something– two somethings – crawling up his leg, then his back, then shoulder. No no no no no no –
The despareate husbands locked eyes. Mitjan was on the cusp of yelling out to Lath'N; either to warn him or to tell him to just let go. Lath'N's gaze flickered to something just out of his peripheral vision. Mitjan felt that something leap from the crown of his head, and saw it land on Lath'N's face. Lath'N bellowed and his grip on the furniture faltered. Still griping each other by the wrists, Lath'N thrashed as the thing shifted to his temple, resisting being pulled off. In the split second that it happened Mitjan's cry to him was cut short as he felt three tiny limbs embrace the side of his head. "La- aaahhhhhhaccccckcaahhhah!….
I AM THE ASCENDENCY…"