Cricket shrank into a dark corner and vibrated in fear. He clamped his mandibles hard to keep from moaning, but a part of his mind knew the sucking, sloshing sound from the next room drowned out any noise he could make. It hinted at volumes of fluid being dragged sloppily through bronchial orifices with a sickening mix of tidal and organic qualities. A rotting odor preceded it and seemed to settle, a greasy, invisible film, on Cricket’s pale green integument. Although he had never seen the— the thing—in the next room, he knew full well what it was.
And that was why one such as he now quivered in enervating terror.
Anyone who lived long in Lacus had heard of the thing. Each race had its own name for it, some euphemistic, like the Ill Wind, some humorous, like Snotbag or the Rolling Gut, and others clinical—The Cleaner. Cricket, who could speak a dozen languages, felt the names whirl through his brain, which incidentally was distributed from the tip of his tail to a neuronal swelling in his head.
There was no use dwelling on how he’d gotten in this fix, with only seconds to live.
He dwelt: It had been a job, a favor, for the Mole King, who was really more like a chieftain. The Moles were tired of the mutually destructive war with the Squamates and were ready to talk peace. But what Mole could be sent to carry this message, when the current policy was envenomation at sight?
In the midst of his trapped panic, Cricket clicked his mandibles angrily. If only he had begged off the Mole King’s request, then he wouldn’t be in this mess. But the tip of a five-pronged spear was a strong motivator.
The slurping became even louder; the ancient stone floor trembled with the thing’s approach. The stench intensified. Since Cricket’s olfactory organs were located on his antennae, he had no ability to suppress them by pinching together nostrils.
Few had seen the thing and lived; they reported a kind of gelatinous wavering in the air, shadows floating in illogical positions, a glistening fluid seeping out on the floor before it. Many thought the miasma it emanated contained a chemical weapon, beyond the disgusting odor, that paralyzed those who got too close. Others claimed that its deceptively brainless creeping hid an ability to shoot out poisonous tentacles of hideous strength.
In Lacus, home of monsters, the thing was the worst of them all. Now it was close, just beyond the dry-stone arch that led to this dead end.
It had been bad luck—bad luck and carelessness—that had forced him here. The area between the Mole demesne and the spiral burrows of the Squamates had been terra incognita. He’d quickly picked up that it was constructed in a grid. Thus, he hadn’t been terribly concerned when he caught the whiff of the thing. He’d realized it was in his direct path, but it had been easy to turn ninety degrees away, with the intent of taking up a beeline to the Squamates once the monster had been avoided. It had been a great plan, until he ran into a wall of rubble and found that the thing had cut off his escape.
That had been a terrible moment, the first stab of fear, yet distant. The thing had no mind. It had never been known to pursue anyone. What it did was eat, mindlessly and implacably, any living or once-living thing it touched, whether goblin or goule or garganta major. It would scour the flesh and leave whitened bones. So, it wasn’t exactly the feeling of being hunted, more like being threatened by a flood or a cascading scarab infestation.
The cold fear grew into panic as he continued to run into cave-ins. They weren’t new; he simply didn’t know his way around this area. He was like a company of light-loving adventures trooping down to Lacus with torches and canteens and satchels of food. Noisy, incompetent bumblers, bumping into corners and scribing onto their graph paper by scarce lantern-light. Inevitably, they’d tumble into a spiked pit or arouse an eyeball-stealing sandman or a maddening Qliphoth. Most ended up distributed in the bellies of various monsters, with the remainder being dissolved by the thing.
As his options dwindled, the thing grew closer. His wit, puissance, and experience availed him nothing. Now he was cornered in a room with no exit. On the fitted walls, inch-long shelfs of phosphorescent fungus sprouted in clumps, the base of the Lacus food pyramid.
The apex grew near.
At first, he thought it was water running into the room, but water wasn’t so viscous, with the translucent impression of a membrane, nor did it bunch up near the walls and scale them. He made to draw back from the approaching fluid, but could not. His muscles yet held him upright, still obeyed the last commands, but would accept no new ones. He was paralyzed.
A flat, glistening sheet presented itself in the doorway. It extruded itself past the threshold, retaining the corridor’s rectangular shape for a beat before swelling with surprising speed. It would be in his corner to scour him from existence in a minute. He wondered if it would hurt? Would there be some kind of deadening of his nerves, or would it burn like fire as it dissolved him over the coming weeks? If the latter, would such a hell drive him insane? Or just an eternity of torture that wouldn’t end until his systems finally shut down?
As the thing approached like a wave made of molasses, something else appeared in his peripheral vision of his large, egg-shaped compound eyes. It was a grey seam opening like the skin of a cut animal. A surface dweller stepped into the room. In front of him, he held an Item. Multi-colored light emanated from it, a kaleidoscopic barrage of brilliant jewel tones, to smash into the side of the thing. The painfully bright rays penetrated its gelatinous bulk, revealing in horrid refraction, floating corpses, skeletons, and pieces of corroded metal in a wobbling suspension. Bubbles or cysts riddled its sepia-hued, scummy volume. The prismatic spray raced through the thing—where the colors touched, it froze. In an instant, it had ceased to undulate and remained poised like a kind of aggressive ice.
The colorful sunburst emanating from the Item shone pink through the back of the surface dweller’s hand, and then winked out, leaving only the normal green glow of the fungi. Cricket would have blinked, if his eyes had that function. He waited for them to recover from the stunning effects of the light. The man was a typical example of the wizard class, frail and weak and not possessing any integral weapons. He would carry Items of power or otherwise effect magic by spoken formulae and intricate gestures. Easy pickings at short range.
But he regarded Cricket with a watchful glance, and Cricket, who had regained the power of movement, shrank against the wall, partly in feigned cowardice, partly from legitimate dread of the Item.
“I have no quarrel with you, creature, but keep your distance or I’ll incinerate you.”
Cricket shivered. The surface dwellers and their fire!
“I’m just a harmless messenger,” he chittered. “Not like a Cleaner.”
The man nodded. “Cleaner, eh? I’ll be out of your way presently.”
He had a grey goatee, wickedly-arched eyebrows, and wore a tough-looking, intricately-embroidered tunic and a purple cap. A fine gold chain glittered around his neck, from which dangled a draconian figurine—how the surface dwellers loved their gold! From a belt pouch, he withdrew a steel rod that seemed to grow as he pulled it, hand-over-hand. When its other end, which terminated in a claw, finally came into view, it was revealed to be eight feet long. Carefully avoiding the layer of the thing on the floor, the man pushed the claw into its frozen substance. When he withdrew it, the claw was clutching a glob of the brownish gel. This he deposited into a steaming steel case he had taken from the pouch. Again, the case was clearly larger than the receptacle in which it had been stored.
Cricket studied these actions avidly. Whatever was going on, he would somehow turn it to his advantage.
“Why do you take part of it?” he said, mandibles clicking.
“It’s my work,” said the wizard. Now he withdrew a heavy book and a quill from the pouch. He searched about him, and Cricket quickly approached the man with a long-legged stride and offered his tibial spines. The wizard hesitated before allowing Cricket to hold the tome at a convenient angle.
Squinting, he scribbled and mumbled. “The ‘Cleaner’ is a gelatinous mass, brownish and translucent, of about 8000 cubic feet. Bones and metal are suspended within it—therefore, it must have difficulty digesting those substances. It emanates a paralyzing mist with a range of roughly ten paces. Weaknesses:”
“It has none,” interjected Cricket from behind the book. “No one meets the Rolling Gut and escapes!”
“Also known as the Rolling Gut,” mused the man as he wrote.
“The Crawling Stomach,” added Cricket. “The Maid Service—the fairie dark call them that.”
Poorly disguising his delight at the information, the wizard also scrawled these names.
“Some call it the Murderer of Surface Dwellers,” said Cricket. He had made that one up. Nonetheless, the wizard wrote it down. After finishing his entry, he closed the book with a heavy thump. Something in his bearing suggested he would soon leave, and Cricket’s belly-tube spasmed in fear.
“Your work is to write these things about…?”
“Monsters,” said the wizard. “I travel the world and the world below the world and document these dangers. Once this manual is completed, I will publish it.”
Cricket pivoted his head, which gave him a hesitant look, but actually improved his depth perception. “What is a monster?”
He had heard the word, of course; the surface dwellers used it to describe the denizens of Lacus.
The wizard looked down his nose at Cricket. “A monster is a deviant lifeform, usually hideous, and generally malicious.”
“Ugly to look upon?” For his part, Cricket thought the wizard a shriveled and pathetic specimen, the putty-like skin inferior to his own chitin carapace, the tiny eyes little more than wet blobs in an ungainly, hairy head.
“And killers?” It occurred to him that the surface dwellers who ventured into Lacus had no compunction about slaughtering its inhabitants with sword, arrow, or fire.
The man grunted, but seemed to lose interest in the conversation. If the man left him here, he would be trapped by the frozen Cleaner at best, or digested by it if it were allowed to revivify. Cricket clamped his mandibles firmly together to prevent them from snapping in anger or fear. This did not interfere with his speaking apparatus.
“I, Cricket, know of many monsters. The Moles, the Squamates, the shug monkey, the penanggalan that flies and leaves its body behind, the water horse which lives in streams and puddles, the chichevache, cow with the face of a man…”
He knew many more, and the appraising look on the wizard’s face told him he was on the right track. “The Blue-faced hag. The Luduan, a beast which detects truth…”
“You know of these monsters? You can show them to me?”
“Yes, I have had dealings with most, and the rest I have been told of. I know that a penanggalan hunts by scent, and can be defeated by filling the air with a distracting odor. The water horse must be tricked into an amphora and is thus rendered harmless. I can tell you how to know a Luduan by sight and thus avoid being found out in a lie.”
“It is possible I may have use of you—Cricket. What do you want in return?”
Cricket ignored the wall of death he suspected would close in on him the moment the sorcerer left. “Nothing, just to serve. I am a harmless messenger here in Lacan, you see. Not hideous or malicious, I am.”
Maybe he’d been laying it on too thick, but the wizard appeared satisfied. “Very well. I will take you away from certain death. In return, you will guide me to the monsters and share your information.”
“It’s a deal.” He extended a tibial spine and the other grasped it with his weak, bony hand.
The wizard pondered. “Follow me and we shall get to work.”
The air split, revealing a dark space as if a curtain had been pulled aside. He strode into it, feeling nothing except a slight change of temperature. They emerged into another part of Lacus, not too far from their previous location. The walls and floors were of fitted stone; fungi phosphoresced from both sides of the corridor. After inspecting the area, Cricket soon oriented himself. An idea came to him, and he twitched audibly.
“Wizard, know you of the mokoi?”
“Tell me of it.”
“Ah… it is a spirit that lives in the walls. I do not think it carved out the passages it haunts. In shape it is not unlike a surface dweller, but it is made of glowing orange and white threads. It is the spirit of a dead man who has fled to the underworld.”
The wizard grunted as he followed Cricket’s confident strides. He clutched a slender bone rod, holding it not like a weapon, but a tool.
“Tell me more.”
“It does not hunt in Lacus, but on the surface. It floats along these passages, floating slowly, and rises until it emerges at midnight. There it sneaks into a household and snatches a human child.”
“And what threat is it to an armed man, such as myself? That is the sort of information that most interests me.”
“Ah… I can tell you what it does to the children it steals. No, you can see for yourself.”
They had reached a jagged slit in the wall, nearly invisible in the murk. Cricket slipped into it, followed closely by the wizard. The passageway was nearly too narrow for the man, but an easy fit for Cricket’s tubular carapace. They crept along for some minutes. At length, they came to a thing on the ground that first appeared to be a twisted towel or blanket, but was shown to be a dessicated human child. The wizard knelt and inspected its puckered, woody skin. The look on its face was truly hideous.
“All the water’s been sucked out of it,” said the man. After a moment’s thought, he pulled out the tome and wrote an entry under ‘mokoi’. “Most interesting, Cricket. But it only kills children? What other powers does it have?”
They had begun moving again. They passed several other corpses, each just as grisly as the first. The secret corridor let out into a square room with a few dozen of them, stacked high. They didn’t take much room, and weighed no more than scarecrows.
“Well,” said Cricket. “Besides the floating and the sucking? Probably nothing—probably nothing worth noting. But here we are. The mokoi resides in the next room.”
The wizard, nodding, readied his Item in one hand and the rod in the other. He padded to the indicated entrance, steeled himself, and passed through it. Cricket crept behind him after a few moments’ pause. His large eyes revealed to him a tempting sight—the wizard’s back. A filmy cloud of orange and white streamed from a clay vase on the ground, some of the threads wriggling as if wind blew them towards the surface dweller. It was as they had said, then—the mokoi had the ability to entrap sorcerors. The wizard stood unmoving, his arm in the act of holding the Item aloft.
Cricket twittered in glee. He allowed his spiked forelegs to emerge from the tibial sheathes that had hitherto concealed them. Each spiky tubercule, made of chitin, was sharp and about an inch long. The end of the foreleg came to a curved point. He spread his mandibles wide and covered the ten feet to the wizard in a single leap. The scimitar-like forelegs struck down at the wizard’s back—
And rebounded with a shower of brilliant sparks. Cricket fell to the side and shrank back with a spastic twitch of his limbs. The Item flared to life, and the rainbow forced the mokoi back into its jar. A lid from the floor flew up and fastened itself in the opening as if in the grasp of an invisible man.
The wizard turned back to Cricket, who now shrank into the corner. Cricket smiled ingratiatingly, thinking to flee, but the look on the man’s face was grim. Too late, he realized the sorcerer had frozen him. Rather casually, he removed the tome from the pouch and set to writing.
“Calls itself ‘Cricket’. Stands about four feet tall normally, but can extend to much longer. About a hundred and twenty pounds. Light green. Two large compound eyes. Its forelegs appear to be clumsy, but conceal retractable, razor-sharp weaponry. A deceptive ambush predator—do not trust on any account.”
Cricket found that he could speak. Perhaps he could trick the sorcerer and shred him with his mandibles. “You do me injustice, I am just a messenger, not a monster. Come close, surface dweller, come close. I have secret information. I will whisper it to you…”
“I think not.”
Cricket gnashed his mouth-parts together. “Filthy surface dweller! Cowardly, weak, soft thing! You and your kind, your ugly, hideous kind, sneak into our homes and kill us. You slaughter us and burn us and take our treasure. And call us monsters!”
The wizard shook his head and waved his wand. The light shifted; lines reversed. The temperature of the air was different here.
They were back in the room he had first met the wizard.
“I have done you no harm, Cricket, nor taken your gold. I merely gave you a chance—which you squandered. I now return you to the state I found you.”
Cricket strained his head around—he could rotate it nearly 180 degrees—the Cleaner remained in the position he had last seen it. Its brownish, translucent mass bulged from the corridor, still paralyzed. But deep within it, bits were stirring, shifting. They were changes that could occur in any frozen fluid, but somehow had some nauseating impression of vitality, eagerness, about them.
It was coming back to life.
The wizard stepped into a black seam in the air. The seam zipped up. Leaving only Cricket…
And the thing.
Back in my D&D playing days, the ethics of sneaking into a dungeon inhabited by sentient–if unpleasant and ugly–creatures, in order to kill them for experience points and gold coins never occurred to me. Yet that’s the essence of the typical dungeon crawl, isn’t it? Cricket’s alignment may be some variety of evil, and the Wizard’s some species of lawful, but does it follow that the invasion is therefore justified?