Stelpa heard the noise again, and almost dropped her pick. She wasn't just hearing things this time. There was something unnatural in this mine. It sounded like scraping against stone, heavy breathing, hissing. Not bothering to wait to hear it a third time, Stelpa headed back up the tunnel to where the other dwarves were. Along the way, she peered nervously at each intersection to try to see where it might have come from, but there was nothing.
"Did any of you hear anything?" she asked when she reached the small camp, blinking a little as her eyes adjusted to the lantern's light. There were three of them still there, poring over a map of the mines.
"No," said Eldur, the expedition leader. "Is one of the miners hurt?"
"It wasn't that," Stelpa said. "There's something down here. It sounded big."
"There shouldn't be anything down here," Eldur said. "There's nothing but solid rock for miles."
"I don't know. Maybe one of the miners breached a cavity that didn't show up on our scrying. But I swear I heard something down there. Something not dwarven."
Her words were puncuated by a bloodcurdling dwarven scream from down the mining tunnels. "Dwarves, axes!" Eldur barked.
The dwarves grabbed their weapons and marched down the tunnel after Eldur, carefully looking about to see what was down here and where it was. Stelpa, armed only with her mining pick, followed a little behind them, wide-eyed. She didn't want to be caught down here by whatever creature was in this mine, but she wasn't about to disobey Eldur and look the coward by fleeing without even having seen the enemy.
Down one of the mining tunnels, Stelpa thought she saw movement, backdropped by an unnatural subterranean light in the distance. As they cautiously grew closer, the details slowly became clear. It was large, insectoid, with forelimbs that were like two curved swords, and faceted eyes that glinted with inner light. It was devouring what was left of one of the other miners, although the body was so mangled by now that Stelpa couldn't hope to identify who it was any longer.
"By Darg, what is that thing?"
"Blood and vengeance!" cried Eldur, charging forward with his large axe brandished.
The other two dwarves attacked along with him, but Stelpa held back. She reasoned that the tunnel wasn't wide enough for three to fight side by side. Even as she thought that, however, she glanced back the way she'd come just to make sure there was a clear route by which to escape.
Slicing pincers lashed out quicker than thought. Blood spilled onto the rock floor. Screaming echoed through the tunnels. Stelpa was already running. As fast as she could, as far as she could, just to get away from this monstrosity. She could only hope grimly that it would pause to feast on her fallen compatriots before it decided to come after her.
Heart pounding in her chest, Stelpa didn't even pause for breath until she reached the ramp leading up to the next level. She held still and quiet, and looked back down the tunnel. Silence. It didn't look as though the thing had followed her. She wasn't particularly reassured, however.
Stelpa climbed up the ramp, circling up around several levels up, then down another corridor toward the fortress. Along the way, she encountered a few dwarves hauling carts of ore to storerooms to be processed. They glanced over at her curiously. She was still moving at a brisk pace, and must look fairly terrified to them.
"I've got to warn the council," she said. "There's monsters in the mines! They've eaten all the other miners!"
As she strode through the fortress, ranting at anyone who would listen, some of the dwarves broke off what they were doing to grab weapons or shore up defenses at the downward tunnel. When she got to the council hall, word had already travelled ahead of her.
"What's this all about?" asked Urist, the council head.
"Monsters!" Stelpa babbled. "They're enormous bugs, with claws twice as long as a dwarf, and they move faster than you can blink!"
"We'll station a squadron of marksdwarves near the mine tunnel," Urist said offhandedly. "And have fresh stacks of bone bolts ready to reload their crossbows with as needed."
Stelpa doubted it would be enough. She headed out to take a look at the tunnel again, and saw dwarves were rapidly building fortifications across the tunnel. Dwarves scurried about efficiently, moving stone and ammunition hither and fro. Maybe they would even be prepared whenever the inevitable attack came. She wasn't so certain about it, so she positioned herself a safe distance away where she could watch.
The marksdwarves cried out, and fired a volley through the fortifications. Then after a moment, someone said, "You fools, that wasn't a bug, that was Rubin!"
"Whoops. Uh, tell her husband we're sorry?"
An hour passed without further incident. Some of the marksdwarves were getting bored, and half of them wandered off to get some booze to drink. There were only three of them still actively paying attention when Stelpa heard the screeching and scratching sounds again from down the tunnel.
"They're here! They're here!"
The marksdwarves fired wildly at the oncoming invaders. As more dwarves frantically tried to scrabble for weapons and defend the fortress, the insects were rapidly breaking down the makeshift fortifications. Hastily piled rocks crumbled under the onslaught, and long sword-like pincers reached through and bloodily dismembered a pair of dwarves who were too close.
Before long, the bugs were swarming unimpeded through the fortress, and Stelpa wasn't about to stick around any longer. She fled the scene, and made for the stairs, then raced through the upper levels. The sounds of dwarven screaming in terror and agony echoed through the caverns behind her.
She made a sharp left into the control room and sealed the door shut behind her. Here there were arranged a number of levers linked to the various floodgates in the fortress. They controlled the flow of the dwarves' reservoirs of water, as well as gates that could slam shut to seal the exits between parts of the fortress in an emergency. None of them were labeled in any way.
"Oh, Darg," Stelpa muttered. She couldn't remember which lever was for what, and the insects sounded as though they weren't far behind her. She had to stop them before they could get up to this level. "Here goes nothing," she said. "Darg guide my hand..."
She began throwing levers at random. In the distance, grinding and slamming sounds could be heard as floodgates moved, though which were opening and which were closing it was impossible to say from here. There was the screaming sound of dwarves, as well as a screeching from the insects. It was higher pitched and louder than before, and sounded almost as if they were in pain.
Stelpa waited patiently for things to go quiet. At least, she could hope, that solid stone door would hold out anything, and she hoped that other dwarves had had the good sense to shut themselves in other rooms instead of trying to fight the bugs. After a while, things were dead silent, and she went over to the door again. Upon touching the door, she realized it was hot.
"Ah, crap," she muttered. Had she inadvertently thrown the switch on the magma forge? "That's the last time I ask for guidance from a god of fire."
With the door being hot despite being thick, solid stone, she certainly wasn't going to open it to see what was going on outside! She went back over to the levers, shaking her head a bit. "Alright then. Jorgen guide my hand!" She pulled two of the levers.
Rumbling could be heard and felt through the stone as floodgates began to move again. Stelpa pulled out some biscuits and mushroom ale from her pack to munch on and wait. She'd been intending on having this lunch with the other ill-fated miners, but now seemed as good a time as any. She waited for a while and checked the door regularly. It seemed to be cooling off. When it was as cold as the other stone around, she figured it was safe to open it and check.
Cautiously, Stelpa nudged the door open a crack, prepared to slam it shut again if anything tried to flood in, but nothing happened. In fact, she could barely manage to get the door open. When she did, she saw that the hallway on the other side was filled with solid rock.
"Well, damn," she said to herself. "That's just dandy. Good thing I still have this pick."