The question of whether we should stay or go was quickly put to rest the following morning. Jespert woke us with a hearty good morning and well wishes for our trip through the tunnels. It was clear he expected us to vacate the premises forthwith.
After a breakfast of mushroom porridge with a little mushroom jam and a cup of tea (yes, mushroom tea), Jespert took us through some dark passages to a stairwell leading to a lower level.
None of the zombers had come to see us off. I suppose the novelty had worn off and they had better things to do. We weren’t exactly legendary heroes setting off on a quest to save the world, just some random people passing through.
The crypt was a surprisingly large structure, and somehow claustrophobic at the same time. I tried to think of it like a museum exhibit, although most museums don’t bother with cobwebs and damp. It would have been creepy enough being down there with full fluorescent lighting and a gift shop, but with just a couple of flickering torches and a zomber guide, it was hard not to get the chills. The big stone coffin didn’t help either.
“You don’t have to look so worried,” said Jespert, his putrid face glistening in the torchlight. “Nobody will jump out of the sarcophagus. It’s just a stone box. With a dead body inside it.”
That didn’t really make me feel any better.
“This is the start of the tunnels.” Jespert held up his torch to show the large hole in the wall. The light from the torch illuminated the brickwork and little else.
I peered into the darkness. The darkness peered back into me. Not really much you could tell other than it was colder and darker in there than out here. Everyone paused at the entrance, building up the courage to step into the void. Jenny and Mandy stood at the back, probably wondering what we were all waiting for.
“Who built these tunnels?” asked Maurice.
“The trolls,” said Jespert. “They love digging tunnels. Passes the time, I suppose. They’re very long-lived.”
“These trolls,” I said, “anything we should know about them? In case we bump into a couple.”
The trolls in Earth folklore varied from those that hid under bridges waiting to interrogate passing goats, to those who turned into stone if exposed to sunlight. It would help to know which type we were likely to encounter.
“Let me see,” said Jespert. “Well, they’re big. Their skin is hard as rock, so hitting them won’t do much. They’re either very stupid, or very smart and just pretending to be dumb, I’ve never been able to work out which. They do have quite a curious nature, so if you can pique their interest somehow, they might not eat you. Not straightaway, at least. On the whole, my advice would be to run.”
“Do they have any weaknesses?” I asked.
“Yes,” said Jespert, “they have a terrible sense of humour. Don’t let them tell you any jokes.”
I wasn’t sure how knowing that would help, but knowledge is power, I guess.
“Any other creatures down there?” It would have been nice if it was just a nice, long empty tunnel from A to B, but how likely was that? “Rabid moles? Giant worms? Balrogs?”
“I’ve never encountered any, but it is possible,” said Jespert.
I had run out of pointless questions and no one else had any more delaying tactics, so we thanked Jespert for his hospitality, lit all our torches and oil lamps (Dudley had one in each hand), and entered the darkness like a fireball with fourteen legs.
The temperature dropped quickly as we made our way deeper into the tunnel. The walls were roughly hewn with long horizontal gouges, like they’d been dug with giant claws. The tunnel was big. If I stood on Dudley’s shoulders, I’d just about be able to touch the roof. An occasional gust of air threatened to blow out our torches, but other than that there was no sound or movement.
It took about half an hour before we reached the first fork in the tunnel. According to the map, we needed to take the right path. I scratched a ‘Z’ into the tunnel wall with my spike.
“Why are you doing that?” asked Claire. “We have the map.”
“Because you might lose the map, and we’ll need to find our way back.” I carved an arrow next to the ‘Z’.
“I’m not going to lose the map.” Claire sounded annoyed by the accusation.
“Good.” I carved the arrow deeper so it couldn’t be missed.
We headed down the right hand tunnel for another hour and came out into a small chamber with three other tunnels leading from it. Which was a slight problem, since the map showed only two.
Claire held the map open, looking down at it, then up at the tunnels, then back at the map.
“I don’t understand…” she muttered to herself. “We can’t have gone the wrong way. This is the only way.”
Maurice stood next to her holding an oil lantern to light the map. “Jespert did say the trolls like to dig tunnels. Maybe they added one here.”
Everyone murmured agreements to this line of thinking.
“According to Jespert,” he continued, “the trolls tend to keep to the left side so let’s take the far right one.”
Watching them make their own decisions, and pretty sensible ones, was quite gratifying. Perhaps, one day, they’d be able to look after themselves. I carved a ‘Z’ into the wall and then we set off down the tunnel on the far right.
It was quite a boring walk. Small conversations would occasionally break out, but we were silent for the most part. No monsters, no threats, but there was still something in the air that made me feel a little apprehensive.
The tunnel ended in another chamber. This one also had the wrong number of tunnels leading out of it. By which, I mean to say it had none. It was a dead end.
Claire stared at her map.
“It’s fine,” said Maurice. “It just means we took the wrong tunnel. We’ll go back and take one of the other ones.”
“What if it isn’t the wrong tunnel,” said Claire, her voice trembling slightly. “What if Jespert gave us a fake map? What if he wanted us to get lost?”
“Why would he do that?” said Maurice. “Don’t start thinking like Colin. No offense.”
“None taken,” I said. “Come on, let’s get going.”
We headed back through the tunnel until we reached the previous chamber. When we had arrived here the first time, there had been four tunnels in total. Now there were five.
“How? How can there be another tunnel?” Claire was starting to panic. The pressures of leadership.
It seemed unlikely someone could have dug a tunnel that fast or that quietly. Still, there it was.
“We have another problem,” I said. “The marks I made showing us the way back seem to have disappeared.”
I had gone from tunnel entrance to tunnel entrance, looking for the scratches I had made, but found nothing. The other started to look around nervously.
“This is all my fault,” said Claire. “I was too trusting. I didn’t ask enough questions. I’m such an idiot.”
“Hey,” said Maurice, “don’t say that.” He moved to put his arms around her, but she pushed him away.
“Why not?” she said bitterly. “It’s true. Isn’t it, Colin?”
They all turned to me.
“What, that you’re an idiot? Yes, of course it’s true. But this has got nothing to do with that. Someone’s obviously messing with us. There was no way to predict that. Maybe it’s Jespert, maybe it’s the trolls, I don’t know. But I don’t think I would have handled anything any differently to you. No point getting worked up about something you had no control over.”
Claire looked confused. “I thought you’d be more upset. I didn’t expect you to be so nice about it.” She burst into tears.
While everyone rushed to comfort her, I inspected the walls more closely. It was hard to concentrate with all the crying and sympathy-sobbing and words of encouragement.
“Alright, can we turn off the waterworks?” I said, starting to get annoyed. “We still have to find our way out of here.”
The bawling gradually receded to a few sniffles.
“Obviously the map isn’t going to be of much use,” I said, “but we have pencil and paper, we’ll just make our own map. It’ll be like an old fashioned game of Dungeon & Dragons. Right, Maurice?”
Maurice’s eyes lit up. “Leave it to me.” He started pulling out bits of paper from his bag. “Just let me find that piece of charcoal. It’s here somewhere.”
“Basic rules of D&D, make a map, test for traps—” I turned to Claire “—and no crying.”
“Not unless you’ve seen the Player’s Manual for the fifth edition,” mumbled Maurice. “Enough to bring anyone to tears.”
I ignored Maurices grudge against Wizard’s of the Coast and pointed at the wall next to me. “We’ll have to be less obvious. Here, see this red streak in the rock? We can use things like this to identify tunnels. If they don’t know how we’re marking the way, they can’t change it behind our backs. Cheeky bastards.”
Eyes and mouth appeared in the wall I was pointing to. It leaned down, which isn’t what you expect a wall to do.
“Who you calling cheeky?” it said in a voice like rolling thunder.
I backed away into the middle of the chamber, where I bumped into the others backing away in the opposite direction. All around us, the walls had come to life and were walking towards us.
The trolls were indistinguishable from the rocks around them. Their skin matched flawlessly, so when they stood in front of a tunnel, it seemed to disappear. Now that they had moved, you could see the chamber had many more tunnels leading from it than we had thought, at least a dozen.
“Er, hello,” I said as we quickly became surrounded. The trolls were eight feet tall and made of rock, being polite seemed a good idea. “Do you like riddles?”
Jespert had said trolls were curious and had a terrible sense of humour. Riddles seemed the ideal distraction.
The troll advancing towards me stopped. “Go on, then.”
“Ah, what has four legs in the morning, two legs in the afternoon and three legs in the evening?”
The troll pursed his lips. Well, he didn’t have any lips but he made a kind of small rock formation around his mouth. “Mmm. I have no idea.” And then he hit me.
Author’s Note: So nice having a break! Have some interesting ideas for this week. Don’t think any of you will guess where this arc is going.
I’ve also set up a Patreon page. Not that I expect anyone to sign up, but you may find some of the rewards amusing.
If you haven’t already, please vote for this storyat Top Web Fiction. I’ve been getting quite a lot of traffic from this site since I put my story up there. You don’t have to signup, just press the button. . Your help is greatly appreciated.