Dwarves and Mutants


Denny LaRue stood still, fly-catching.

He snapped shut his mouth when he realised he was giving his superior a clear view down his gullet. “I’m sorry, Overseer Odun, I must have misheard you. Could you repeat that?”

“Certainly,” Odun barked stiffly, drawing himself up and curling the ends of his grey moustache. “I said that you and your platoon are hereby tasked by the King with securing one of the Rodici mutants that dwell in the caverns below, for the pleasure of His Majesty.”

Denny glared at the Overseer clad in soft blue silks and then took a surreptitious look down at his own body, protected by coarse fabric and chunky armour made from the bleached bones of Rodici. He doubted the Overseer had ever worn such armour, doubted he had ever swung an axe.

“And when you say ‘secure’,” Denny asked slowly, trailing off, “you mean …?”

“I mean secure one. Trap one. Grab one. Catch one. And bring it back here. Alive. We will quarter it in the arena. Provisions have been made for it.”

“You want me and my warriors to venture down into the darkness below to attempt to ‘catch’ a mutant Rodici, is that right?”

“Yes!”

Denny rubbed his rouge beard, trying to remain calm. “And this would be the exact same mission that some fifteen other platoons have been ‘tasked’ with accomplishing, correct?”

“Sixteen. Correct.”

“Sixteen.” Denny puffed out his cheeks, eyes wide as he stared at the sandstone floor. “Great. When do we start?”

“As soon as you’re ready.”

It did not take Denny long to prepare. The following morning, he and his platoon gathered at the edge of the city of Dwarves, Dwarhummer. No sunlight sparked off their bone armour, for they dwelled underground. Only the soft glow of the thousands of silkworms hanging from the ceiling on luminescent threads cast a shine over the subterranean sandstone city, augmented by braziers here and there. Denny glanced up at the plethora of alabaster pillars connecting floor to roof, wherein dwelled hundreds of Dwarves. The little bearded folk had mastered the art of architecture, but they had not mastered the monsters that lumbered in the dark pits beneath them. That, apparently, was Denny’s job.

Trying to remain calm lest the Rodici sense his rage at being tossed away like a stained rag, he stroked one of the strange beasts on its eyeless head. Its skin was white, completely without pigment thanks to generations of breeding underground, almost translucent so that the creature’s thick bones could be seen squirming around as it moved. The beast resembled a giant hairless rat, with large buck teeth at the end of its short snout, pointy ears, a long pink tail like a worm and claws that could shred the flesh from a Dwarf in seconds. Its nose was a strange organ, like a tiny octopus on the tip of its face, with little wriggling pink legs that helped the beast sniff its way through the labyrinthine underground caverns in which it was raised. Standing as tall on four legs as the Dwarves did on two, the Rodici could have been deadly rivals to the Dwarves had not the two races developed a symbiotic relationship wherein the Rodici helped the Dwarves in their never-ending quest to dig deeper and in return the Dwarves protected, fed and provided comfort to the Rodici.

“D’you have the sedatives?” Denny asked his friend, Roins Talish.

Roins nodded and indicated the wicker basket hugging his back, slung over both shoulders. It was full of white-flecked, red mushrooms. Not many plants grew by the light of silkworms in the musty depths of Dwarhummer, but a few strange species thrived there and it was from these that the Dwarves had fashioned the basket. Likewise, not many fungi grew underground, and many of those that could be coaxed to do so were lethally poisonous. Some, on the other hand, worked remarkably well as sedatives in small doses.

“The fly agarics,” Roins replied, his baritone at odds with Denny’s tenor, his sooty hair and beard a counterpoint to Denny’s own stubbornly ruddy locks. “I have them here. We should be careful with the doses, though. I don’t know how much we’ll need for one of these beasts, and we could easily give them an overdose.”

Denny rubbed his eyes with his fingertips. “Half a mushroom is plenty to knock out a Dwarf. A full mushroom might kill him. A Dwarf is, on average, around four feet tall. Some of these mutants are easily three times the size of that. So, it stands to reason it will take three times the size of the dose to achieve a similar effect, no? So, a mushroom and a half to knock out one of the mutants, d’you reckon?”

Roins shrugged. “Different things affect different species differently. Honestly, we won’t know for sure until we get down there and try it out. It’s not like any of the previous sixteen platoons are still alive to tell us what they’ve learned, eh?”

Denny scowled. “No. And we’re next – just another group of names scrubbed off a list by an uncaring monarch!”

Roins shrugged lackadaisically. “What can you do?”

“Nothing,” Denny growled, clenching his fists. “That’s what rankles me the most!”

Roins nodded. “Disobeying orders is a sure way to at least a flogging, if not expulsion.”

“I know.”

Roins shrugged again. “Nothing else for it then, eh? Let’s get her done – and not get killed along the way.”

Denny could not suppress a small smile. “Ever the philosopher, aren’t you, Roins?”

Roins shrugged. “I reckon.”

Denny blew out a breath and turned to face the score of Dwarves that made up his platoon, all of them garbed in bleached bone armour as was he, like external ribcages. Alongside them waited a dozen Rodici, tails wagging.

“Right you are,” Denny muttered, before raising his voice to shout, “Listen up, Dwarves! You all know our mission. We are ordered by the King himself to capture a Rodici mutant from the pits – alive. You all know the plan, so from here on out, communication should be deemed unnecessary for all but emergencies. We don’t want to make a whisper down there lest we bring the entire mutant population down upon us. We only want one. Get one and we can return with our lives, with our heads held high. I know it is a lot to ask. But I know too that you are Dwarves to shift mountains, as they say. If anybody can do it, it is you! May Andhrun smile up at us from the First Forge deep within Maradoum as we commit ourselves to his mercy. Now, we go! For Andhrun and Dwarhummer!”

“For Andhrun and Dwarhummer!” the Dwarves echoed unenthusiastically, none relishing the task they had been assigned.

Nevertheless, they hefted their iron axes and hammers and strode onto the wooden platform by which they stood, followed by the Rodici. Denny signalled a nearby Dwarf, and the Dwarf cranked a lever. With a clank and a rattle of chains, the wooden platform on which stood the score of Dwarves began to slowly drop down through a hole in the floor. As it was lowered on the chains, the lift was submerged in darkness as walls closed it in, but then the soft light of silkworms blossomed again as the lift brought the Dwarves and Rodici down to a level beneath the subterranean city. Illuminated wanly by the silkworms’ radiance was a sole sandstone ledge leading to a narrow staircase that slalomed down in switchbacks into a musty abyss. The lift lowered the warriors and their pets to the ledge, and they stepped out onto it, eyeing the tortuous steps leading down into darkness with a touch of dread like skitters on their spine.

“You first, boss,” Roins prompted, and Denny sighed and set off down the winding path, leading the platoon.

He hissed more than once for them to be silent as their clomping footsteps echoed around the chasm, pebbles chittering underfoot as the path they trod crumbled. They plodded on, seeking in vain for quietude, turning this way and that as they descended into the blackness, the silkworms’ soft glow slowly diminishing step by step until it remained as but a memory. Fortunately, centuries of subterranean dwelling meant that the Dwarves’ eyes had adjusted to the darkness and could yet see well enough to make out their way. The Rodici sniffed out their path as always. Just beyond the sound of their footsteps, an eerie silence wafted around the platoon like a poltergeist at the edge of peripheral vision, raising goosebumps on their pale flesh.

In time and without incident, they made it to the base of the slaloming staircase and beheld a grand, rugged cavern. A honeycomb of tunnels had been bored through the sandstone walls, leading away in all directions. As soon as the warriors and Rodici touched down on the cavern floor, they could all make out faint scrabbling noises, like that of trapped rats trying to escape. A shudder ran through the company.

“Where to?” Roins whispered.

Denny crouched by the entrance to a tunnel and replied quietly, “There are tracks here. Big ones. The mutants have been this way recently. Seems as good a way as any other. Come on!”

The Dwarves tiptoed down the passageway, followed far more stealthily by the Rodici. Trying his best not to breathe too loudly, Denny began to feel his chest hurting as though he desperately needed to suck in a decent lungful of the dusty air. He throttled the urge and kept moving. Distant scuffling loosened his bowels. Still, he plodded on, the others behind him. Eventually, the tunnel gave way to another large cavern, this one strewn with bones and blood.

Spotting craggy outcroppings on the far side, however, Denny whispered to Roins, “This looks like a feeding ground. We’ll bait the cave and hide behind those rocks there until a mutant comes by. Pass the word.”

After Roins had passed on the message to the other Dwarves, he returned to Denny, who was anxiously looking from opening to opening. “How many mushrooms should I lay down, d’you think? We have no notion of how many might turn up.”

Denny nodded, brow furrowed. “I know, and there are three tunnels connecting to this cavern. We have no idea which they’ll use.” He sighed and rubbed his red beard. “Better too many mushrooms than too few,” he decided after a moment. “We can always stop them from eating more if needs be, whereas force-feeding them is not an ideal scenario. Lay down half our stash. With luck, only one will come along and we can stop it from eating too many.”

“Half our stash?” Roins repeated, wide-eyed. “That’s a lot of mushrooms – enough to kill a Dragon!”

Denny frowned. “Like I said, we won’t let them eat too many, but it is better there are too many there than too few.”

Roins shook his head. “You know best, boss.”

He scattered half of the fly agarics in his basket on the floor, and then he, Denny and the rest of the Dwarves and Rodici ducked down behind the outcroppings on the far side of the cave, the Dwarves using titbits of fungus to lure the Rodici into lying down. Denny stared at the mushrooms for what felt like hours; he lost all track of time. The red fungi mixed almost seamlessly with the crimson of the blood crusting the sandstone, life and death melded into one. He wondered in the back of his mind about the morality of capturing a creature purely for sport, but self-preservation would not allow him to refuse the command. He would rather see one of these beasts in chains than himself.

At first, he flinched at every slight noise he detected, afraid the mutants were somehow sneaking up on him, though his back was to a wall. After a while, though, he almost dozed off and even the louder noises were scarcely enough to keep him from daydreaming. His blood froze in his veins, though, when he heard a scuffle and a grunt close by. Snuffling preceded a beast ambling into the cavern from a passageway on the left, waddling upright on its hind legs. Denny gasped softly; he had never seen a live mutant so close. Many of the others echoed his wonderment and repulsion.

The creature’s footsteps boomed and shook the cavern, for it stood some twelve feet tall, upright on its hind legs, and stunk like a freshly slaughtered skunk. Its pigment-less skin could be seen past its patchy brown fur in places, and its long, pink tail swished as it walked. Its stunted snout housed huge protruding front teeth like those of a rat, and its nose resembled a tiny pink cephalopod, an odd little sensory organ. It swung its eyeless face this way and that, sniffing, its octopus-nose wiggling. Denny eyed the sharp-looking claws at the ends of its arms uneasily. It was commonly believed that the mutants were a freak variation of the regular Rodici that served as the Dwarves’ pets, an offshoot breed that had proliferated in the caverns deep deep in the earth. No successful attempt had ever been made to tame them. Crouching down on all fours and pressing its strange nose to the ground, the Rodici mutant snuffled its way forward, clearly tracking the scent of the fly agarics.

“That’s it, you ugly piece of dung,” Denny murmured, barely aware he was speaking. “Come on, come on … eat them, you greedy git!”

When the mutant reached the mushrooms, it sniffed at them for some time before deigning to devour one.

“How much should we let it eat, boss?” asked Roins, peeking out from behind the outcropping and hissing over the noise of smacking lips and chewing.

“Just a little bit more,” Denny murmured, holding up a hand. Then, abruptly he made a fist. “Go now! Go now! Grab that thing!”

As they had practised the day before, the Dwarves sprang out from their hiding places and swiftly circled the Rodici mutant, several of them trailing lengths of rope. Others picked up the fallen ends of rope to hold them taut while Dwarves ran around and around the beast to ensnare it. It was not easy, however. The mutant did not stay still. As soon as it saw little meals on legs waddling around it on all sides, it began to roar and lurch this way and that, only to be confounded by the ropes rapidly hemming it in and the Rodici darting around it to confuse it.

It slashed at the ropes, severing a couple, and freed itself enough to lay low two of the Rodici with brutal blows of its claws. Then, it was pouncing on the nearest Dwarves, hampered by the ropes strung around its legs. It managed to fall on one Dwarf, tearing off its face with a bite, and then dragged itself, growling, toward another. The Dwarf panicked, backed away, stumbled and was swiftly gutted by the beast’s claws amid a spray of gore. As the mutant tried to rise, the Rodici sprang on it, sinking their teeth into its flesh before darting away. On its knees, the beast managed to slash open the flank of another Rodici before the Dwarves resumed running around it and trapped its arms against its body, incapacitating it. The struck Rodici whimpered for a while, before dying alongside its two fallen comrades.

The snared mutant’s howls began to wane as if it was tiring, and Denny smirked, observing the mushrooms take effect. The beast swayed one way and then the other, and then fell flat on its face with no way to cushion the blow. It groaned and writhed, but to no effect. It was trapped. Rivulets of blood ran over its pale flesh and ochre fur where the Rodici had bitten it.

“Huzzah!” Denny let loose a cry of exultation before remembering that loud noises might bring a horde of mutants down on their heads. To compensate, he hissed loudly, “Shh! Be quiet, everyone! Get those Rodici in check, and let’s get this thing out of here!”

“How are we going to do that?” whispered Roins, while the other Dwarves quieted the growling Rodici. “It must weigh a ton! We should’ve fed it less mushrooms, so it could still walk.”

“If it could still walk, it could escape and attack us,” Denny pointed out. “It’s better this way. Better safe than sorry, my pa always said.”

“That still doesn’t answer my question!” retorted Roins. “How do you suggest we move the blasted thing?”

“Tie it up and we’ll carry it between us,” whispered Denny, “or drag it if we have to.”

“Carry it,” Roins repeated, deadpanned. “Are you serious? Look at the size of that thing! D’you not remember the enormous staircase we have to climb to get back to Dwarhummer?”

Grinding his teeth, Denny replied, “I do, but we have no other way of getting it there, confound you! Unless you have any bright ideas?”

“We could tie a few shields together to make a stretcher of sorts,” Roins ruminated, regarding the white bone shields held by some of the Dwarves, “which would provide better stability while we carry the beast. I suppose it won’t make much difference, though. We’ll still have to carry it – or drag it.”

“Fine,” snapped Denny, before lowering his voice, “but do it fast! We have to get out of here before more of those monsters come.”

“As you say, boss.”

The Dwarves, who had all been intent on the whispered conversation or the Rodici, now turned their attention back to the bound beast and one of them uttered a soft, “Uh-oh!”

Denny groaned when he saw what had happened. While they had been talking, the beast had clearly not been as insensate as they had thought. It had wriggled across the floor to the stash of fly agarics and tucked in with relish, finishing off almost every last bite. Denny watched it lick its lips with a creeping feeling of horror.

“D’you think that was too much?” he whispered.

“Definitely,” replied Roins.

“Well, why didn’t you scoop the mushrooms back up?”

“I was just about to when you asked for my help!”

“I only asked for your help because you started badgering me with questions instead of doing what you were supposed to be doing – which was scooping up those confounded mushrooms!”

“I-”

Roins was cut off by the sound of the Rodici mutant vomiting violently, spewing reddish gunk all over the bloody floor. The Dwarves watched it gurgle for a while, and then it lay still, perfectly still.

“Is it-?” asked Denny, hesitant to finish the question.

“Dead?” supplied Roins, carefully stepping over to the beast and laying his hand on its hairy neck with a grimace. “Most definitely.”

Stepping away again, he shook puke off his boots with a look of disgust.

Denny almost ripped out his long, crimson locks in vexation. “Damn it, Andhrun pisses on us! We had one, and now we have to start over. Ugh. Back in position, everybody. Roins, bait the trap again, would you? And next time, grab the mushrooms before the beast can eat too many.”


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