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Toncauda- An Adventuring Thriller

Hello, my beautiful community members!

 I apologize for having zero activity this past month, but I assure you that is about to change! This story is not a continuation of my Embers of Reign storyline, following the characters of Miller, Anastacia, and of course the mage Kesarakk.  If you have been following the Short Story Entries for the Spook-A-Thon Stream and have seen my post, this is the extended version of that story. 

Toncauda


Prelude

A torrent of air came down the ancient tunnel kicking up dust and debris. Zekiel covered his face with a rag, coughing up the dust that invaded his throat. The orc, on his knees, turned away from the torrent and waited for it to pass. He silently thanked Suni for his magical torches. Unlike an open flame, these torches would not be snuffed out by air or water and produced no heat. It was the perfect tool for working underground, where the light of the sun held no dominion. He cleared his throat and picked up his brush again. With the skill of a master painter, Zekiel brushed away the layer of grime and dust that covered the walls lining the passage. Where once there was nothing but a smooth surface, now displayed images. He grabbed the torch and brought it closer to inspect his find. 

Stout figures moved in a straight line, leading out of the tunnel. Behind them stood a large creature that resembled a scorpion. Its tail was extended with one of the stout figures attached to it. Zekiel brushed more of the debris off the wall and uncovered a single word under the creature: Toncauda. These had to be dwarves, thought the orc. Several of these tunnels had been discovered by the first explorers from the Vera Gateways and all were narrow and short, much like the Dünzenkell themselves. This was the first time that anyone, from his limited knowledge, had found glyphs hinting to why the bearded folk would abandon their underground kingdoms.

“Zek…” called a voice. The orc turned from the hieroglyphs and looked back down the tunnel. His team was in a large chamber further back, cleaning artifacts they found in what they believed to be a gathering hall. Zekiel set his brush down and reached into a fold in his tunic and pulled out a stone. It was carved with an arcane rune and gave off a low, blue light. The whispering stone had been activated. Suni had given each member of their excavation team a matching stone that could send a message several miles away in case of emergency.

“Zek…” the voice called again. It was familiar to Zekiel, but he couldn’t discern which of his companions it belonged to. The orc pressed the carved, arcane rune and spoke a command word. The blue light began to pulse, locating the second stone.

The orc walked as fast as he could, hindered by the narrow tunnel that was not made for one of his size. Several long minutes passed until he reached the chamber. He looked back to his stone. It had gone dark indicating that he had reached the second stone’s location. Pocketing his stone, he looked around. The room was quiet and undisturbed, save for the large tent that stood in the center of the chamber. Magical torches circled the room giving illumination. Zekiel made his way to the tent and entered. Cots lined the leathery walls while benches ran down its center. He saw various items on the benches that they had gathered. Chisels, pickaxes, even a set of armor and a glistening shield sat on the tables. Some were cleaned, while others still held a layer of dirt and grime from centuries of neglect. Yet there was no sign of his party, nor a note telling him where they had gone.

“Zek…” called the voice again, this time from behind. The orc left the tent and turned about. On the far side of the chamber, an area that had yet to be explored stood Suni. The mage held his hands out in a silent plea but did not speak. Zekiel rushed over to the man. A thousand questions rushed through his head. 

“Suni, what’s-” said Zekiel. The orc was cut off by a sharp pain in his abdomen. He looked down.Protruding from his tunic was a large, translucent spike. He followed it up to where Suni once stood. The mage was gone, replaced by a large, black tail. It moved suddenly, retracting itself from Zekiel’s body. What the orc saw next made his eyes go wide in fear. Its body was large, almost the size of a bear, with four foot long pincers and a set of mandibles, tipped with three small claws. The creature inched closer to Zekiel as the orc lost his footing. He shouted to his body to get up, only if to run, but it would not respond. He could only watch as the pincers closed in around him, picking him up and leading him into the tunnel. Then everything went black.

Two Weeks Later…

“I found it, only a half hour’s walk.” Said T’Vek as he cleaned his hands. They were covered in a blue fluid, as was most of his tunic.

“What happened?” asked Mekon, nodding to the Tulnar’s clothes.

“Spider, common in the upper tunnels. It was a male, thankfully. They are much smaller and less aggressive.” Said T’Vek. He threw the rag he used onto the floor.

“You should have let one of us accompany you. Pairs are safer than going alone.” Said Mekon. The orc crossed his arms over his chest to emphasize his point.

“In the Underrealm, you learn to survive on your own or not at all.” Said the Tulnar, his tone even with no emotion.

“Move out.” Said the orc, not pressing the issue any further. “Eri, you have point.”
The orc saluted his commander and moved ahead of the formation. All eight moved as one, six orcs, the Tulnar, and a Kaelar woman. The orcs outfitted themselves in military armor, shining and ready for use, their red tinted skin in sharp contrast to the silver plate and blackened leather. The woman wore leather, fit for travel while T’Vek wore simple cloth, his scale providing all the protection he needed.

T’Vek’s estimations were correct. In half an hour they were inside a wide, open chamber with a single tent erected in the center. Torches illuminated the room, untouched by time. The orcs fanned out from the entry tunnel. When no threats could be found they took up positions along the walls searching for any sign of Zekiel’s group. Mekon made a b-line for the tent and entered. To his surprise and confusion, there was no sign of a struggle and all the gear needed for excavation were still inside. He exited the tent and looked over to the woman, who held one of the torches in her hand.

“Magic,” she said. “This must be one of Suni’s enchantments.”

“T’Vek, are your people familiar with this area? Do you have any idea where they might have gone?” asked the orc.

He shook his head. The movement was exaggerated by his serpentine features. “The Tulnar do not enter the higher tunnels. Too many predators lurk here.”

Mekon nodded, expecting the answer. When he had been ordered to find the son of a well respected noble, he was told that the Tulnar would help, though their information would be limited the closer the reached the surface. Still, T’Vek had gotten them this far. “Athis, can you detect any other form of magic in this room- anything that might help us?”  

The woman stood at the entrance to one of the tunnels that lined the walls. She raised her hand to show the orc commander a small object.

“It’s a whispering stone,” said Athis. “Mages use them to communicate over long distances. Suni would have given one to each companion on the team in case of emergency.”

“Can you use it to find the others?” asked Mekon.

Athis turned the stone over in her hands and gave an unsure nod. “The magic is spent, but I may be able to use a tracking spell. It would lead us to either Suni or the person who used it last. I’m uncertain as to which.”

“Do it.” Said Mekon, then looked to the others in the room. “These tunnels are cramp, we will go single file until we find a larger room to spread out. Faern, Eri, you take point. T’Vek, Athis and I will be right behind you, the rest take up the rear. If we run into any trouble we double back to this chamber.”

The Ren’Kai saluted, fist over heart and formed up, leaving their sentry posts and gathering near the door. Athis made slow, counter-clockwise motions with her hand and spoke quietly to the stone. After several moments the stone began to glow, though barely visible even in the darkness. “It’s working, but whoever it’s tracking is far off. I’d say maybe five miles.”

“Move out. I want us done with this and back on the surface by sundown.” Said Mekon. Faern and Eri were the first to walk down the tunnel, having grabbed the still lit magical torches that lined the walls. As they left the chamber, Athis, produced her own light, casting an orb to hover inches above their head, taking what was left of the available space.

Their march was slow but measured. Mekon estimated they had gone two miles before the tunnel ended and opened into a new chamber. Faern and Eri fanned out, lifting their torches to cast out the shadows while holding their shields before them, ready for any threat. As the others entered the room Athis sent her own light to scout the room. It was roughly the same size as the previous chamber, though with only one tunnel before them. Mekon ordered a short rest to stretch and eat a quick meal. Waterskins were passed around as Aru, another of the Ren’Kai guard built a small fire. The food was far from elegant, but it was hardy.

Mekon replaced his water skin and rations in his bag, ready to march when a noise came from the tunnel beyond. It was a faint echo at first but grew to silence all other sounds. Mekon ordered his guard to take a defensive formation as figures shambled into the room. Athis called to Mekon and showed him the stone. It cast a bright light then went out, signaling that they had found the owner of the stone. The group looked on as the walking figures made a b-line for them. Athis sent her light orb forward to illuminate their quarry. What they saw calmed and frightened them all at once. 

Six men and three women stood before them. Their clothes were stained with blood and heavily torn. Several of the men were bare-chested with a large, red spot in their midsection. They did not speak as they moved closer. Their pace was erratic, some moving at a brisk walk, while others stumbled over the dirt covered pathway.

“Don’t worry, we’re here to help. Have you seen Zekiel?” asked Mekon to the group. There was no response. The commander turned Eri. “Grab the water skins. We’ll keep them here until we get more information.” The orc nodded to his commander, as did the others. They reached inside their packs and pulled out the needed materials, then walked forward. 

 As the guards close the distance, the survivors attacked, grabbing the orcs. While one orc may have been able to overpower most creatures, they were assaulted by several at once. Eri fell first, having his throat torn out by one of the females. He fell to the ground in a gurgling thud. Faern grappled with two of the survivors, lost his footing, and went to the ground. One straddled him, bending down with his mouth wide for a bite. A sharp pain told the orc the second had latched onto his leg, biting through leather and flesh. Faern grabbed hold of the neck of the one on top of him and choked him. To the orc’s horror the man was not breathing, yet still came. Then the man opened his mouth. A red and white tube exited and extended a four-inch stinger. Before Faern had time to process what was happened the stinger found a home in his eye, penetrating the sensitive organ and continuing into the brain. Faern’s grip faded and the man fell on his face, biting and scratching at the exposed flesh.

“Fall back! Fall back!” commanded Mekon, but it was too late. The Ren’Kai had fallen.

“Mage, use fire.” Said T’Vek as he produced a pair of knuckle axes.

Athis did not hesitate. A red, angry ball of fire shot from the tip of her wand and flew into the cannibalistic orgy. A small explosion sounded and all the Ren’Kai and their assailants were engulfed in flames. The Kaelar mage sent another fireball into them for good measure then went to Mekon’s side, trying to steady him.

Mekon sank to the ground, his spirit broken. He had been in countless battles and had seen much death in his duties as a soldier for the Ren’Kai tribes, but he had never seen such savagery. T’Vek held his fists up, leading his steps to the mass of burnt corpses. When he approached the mass he noticed movement in one of the bodies of the assailants. Seconds later a white and red grub appeared. The small creature made small, pathetic noises as it tried to find a new home. The Tulnar brought his ax covered fist down, severing the creature in half. Both halves of its body convulsed in death throw for several moments then went still. T’Vek turned back to Athis and Mekon, who gave him questioning looks.

“Anglerpods, spawn of the Toncauda.” Said T’Vek. “They are a dangerous creature that hasn’t been seen for many centuries. They hunt using their tails, mimicking different animals, even people. Females have the ability to telepathically send sounds to their prey, making the illusion more complete. After they have mated they will leave their eggs inside a living host. Once they hatch the larva enters the head and kill the host, but use the body to find food and give protection against the elements.”

“How can you be sure that’s what they are if your people haven’t seen them in centuries?” asked Athis. The Kaelar mage walked over to the Tulnar and examined the bodies. They were little more than husks of flesh now, smoldered and ashen.

“Only the Toncauda reproduce in this fashion. No other creature in the Underrealm has this parasitic nature. We tell the tales of Toncauda attacks to our young as not only a warning but also to chastise them for bad behavior.” Said T’Vek.

“Zekiel isn’t one of them.” Said Athis as she examined the bodies. “He was the only Ren’Kai in their group. One of them must have a whispering stone on them.”

“Is it possible that he is still alive?” asked Mekon, removing himself from the ground and looking to T’Vek for answers.

“Hard to say…” said the Tulnar. “All I have are stories, but from what I remember the Anglerpods leave the nest once they’ve killed the host and take over. They spend their first year in the host, hunting for food until they become adolescent Toncauda. Some stories say the females behave like their mother, staying in the nest and have males bring them food, but I’m speculating.”

“Then we find this nest and bring back Zekiel, dead or alive.” Said Mekon.

“What if there is nothing left?” asked Athis.

“Then we burn that nest to the ground.” Said the orc. It was obvious they were not enthusiastic about the plan, but there were no alternatives. Athis and T’Vek nodded in acceptance. “Athis, send your light ahead of us. I’ll keep my shield up in case we get another visit. Have that wand ready.”

Athis snapped her fingers and the orb of light reappeared, circling above her head. With a mental command, she sent the orb into the tunnel, returning the room back to its complete darkness, save for the small flames that still lived among the pile of bodies. Their walk led them through the long tunnel. Warm air hit their faces and in the distance, they could hear water collecting into a small pool that echoed through the stone walls. 

Drip… Drip… Drip…

 Light shocked their eyes as they came to the mouth of a third chamber. Once their eyes adjusted to the sudden brightness they saw a wide cavern full of fungi and plants. A tree grew in a far corner of the room, giving shade from the sun that had invaded the subterranean dwelling. Their focus went from the scenery to a body surrounded by dead animals. Mekon turned back to his companions and nodded to them and moved toward the body. Athis raised her wand, a spell ready in case it was needed while T’Vek checked his grip on the knuckles axes surrounding his fists. They moved in.

The orc approached the body of Zekiel, facing upward and sweat covering his body. His tunic had been torn away and the red circle that Mekon noticed on the other zombified survivors was present on his belly. As the orc knelt down by the body, he noticed the midsection began to move, forcing the stomach to bulge unnaturally.

“The eggs have hatched.” Said T’Vek, leaning over Mekon. “Your friend will die soon if the larva isn't removed.”

Mekon pulled a dagger from his belt. With a measured breath, Mekon cut a vertical line along Zekiel’s stomach. Blood poured from the opened wound, but the unconscious orc did not move. Mekon removed one of his gloves and stuck his hand into the wound. He had gutted several animals in the past from successful hunts, but never another person. The sensation was surreal as he reached around Zekiel’s insides. Finally, he felt something cold try to wiggle away from him. With the swiftness of a trained warrior, Mekon grasped the larva with all his strength and pulled it free. The red and white creature cried in anger and fear from being removed from its home. The orc pinned it against the ground and ran his dagger through it, silencing the creature for good.

“NOOOO!” came a wave of voices, as though hundreds of people were present and denying Mekon’s murderous act.

“The female, she knows we’re in her nest.” Said T’Vek as he readied his weapons. “I suggest you hurry, orc.”

“NOOOO!” came the voices again as a hulking form moved from an opening in the base of the tree. The creature was large, larger than even the land drakes Py’rai elves enjoy riding. Mekon estimated it was easily fourteen feet from tail to pincers and stood roughly eight feet from the ground. The female Toncauda charged forward, leaving all pretense of illusion and trickery behind. They had unleashed her furry.

Athis proved to be the quicker, launching a fireball from her wand. The magical fire hit the female squarely in the face, halting the charge. The Toncauda raised its pincers defensively as she backed away. The Kaelar mage continued her assault, sending white orbs of pure magical energy at the creature. They collided with the female’s hard exoskeleton, causing the shell to crack and produce the orange liquid that was her lifeblood. Athis’ assault made her arrogant as she approached the beast, sending spell after spell into the creature. The Toncauda’s tale came forward then, connecting with the mage’s shoulder. It went cleanly through and raised the woman off the ground. Athis lost hold of her wand and the wooden instrument clattered on the ground, rolling until it wedged itself between two rocks. The Toncauda’s pincers shot out then, lightning fast. One held the woman’s torso while the other found a home around her neck. The female tightened her pincers, causing Athis’s head to come free from her body. The head rolled onto the floor as the other half of her body was severed as well. Red and orange mixed with the combatants’ blood in the terrifying display of primal rage.

“We have to go!” said T’Vek, fear taking hold.

“I’m almost done.” Said Mekon as he fished around for any other larva. He had just dispatched the third. When he thought he had killed the last one, Zekiel’s hand came up then, grabbing Mekon’s exposed arm. The orcs looked at each other for only a moment. Mekon blanched as he saw the irises of Zekiel’s eyes… red. The now Anglerpod lunged forward, its teeth finding a home on the other orc’s ear. Mekon cried out in pain, pulling away from his zombified charge. The two wrestled among the corpses of animals.

The female Toncauda came forward then, cutting off T’Vek’s access to Mekon. The Tulnar looked to the two forms fighting on the ground, their strength evenly matched. With guilt in his heart, the Tulnar fled, leaving the orc to his fate. His path was erratic, but several hours had passed with no pursuit from the Toncauda. The Tulnar stopped to catch his breath, his torso expanding and deflating rapidly. Several minutes passed until he controlled his breathing. He was on the move again, but it was short-lived. He felt a massive force hit him in the back, sending him to the ground. When he tried to turn over he felt a heavy weight on his back, pinning his hands and legs. He turned his head to see a giant, hairy leg on top of his arm. A spider. The Tulnar cried out in denial as the spider’s fangs penetrated his back. Then everything went black.


One Year Later…

Zekiel’s lifeless body shambled through the empty tunnels. His red tinted skin had become white, almost translucent. There was no intelligence behind his path, only instinct. The time had come to finally leave the nest. For the past year, the males had brought food to the zombified host. Its mother, the female Toncauda, had died a year ago. The fireball that had scorched her face destroyed much of her vision and burned through her resilient exoskeleton. Even she, the largest of her kind, was no exception to the laws of nature: The Weak Perished. The males continued to bring the female Anglerpod food, but they too soon moved on. It would be another year before she could mate and males were only loyal to their instincts to survive and reproduce.

The Anglerpod stopped suddenly. She could not see well in the dark, but she didn’t need to. Her telepathic abilities had grown much in the past year and she could sense life nearby. This was the spot. The corpse of Zekiel moved along the wall until it found an alcove. It was time. The translucent skin of the former orc began to tear and pull apart. Black ooze that had once been its life-blood poured from every new opening as the adolescent Toncauda pushed against the walls of its home. First came the pincers, three feet in length and the color of amber. Slowly one leg followed and then another. Its tail broke through the orc’s head, ripping it off with the primal strength of its ancestors. The process took about an hour, but finally, she broke free. The ground of the alcove was covered in bile and pasty flesh. For the first time, she felt the earth around her with her own legs. It was cold and hard, a vast difference from the mushy insides of a living host, but she would adapt. The Toncauda female cleaned herself of the sticky, black ooze as she extended her tail in front of her. The amber metasomal flattened, conjuring an image of a spider. Now she had only to wait. Using her pincers she drummed the floor. There was hardly any sound, but that was not the desired result. She knew from instinct that this was the mating call of the spider. If a male, or another jealous female, was nearby, as she knew they would be, they would feel the vibrations and come. Several hours passed as she played the spider mating call over and over until finally, she felt the floor vibrate. A male had returned her call and would be coming to her soon. Dinner was served.
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